Sunday, July 18, 2010

Misery, music and eBooks: an interview with Pip Adam

Pip Adam’s debut collection of short stories, Everything We Hoped For, was released in May this year. It kicked off a run of debut collections from local authors (Tina Makereti’s Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa in June; A Man Melting by, uh, me, in July). In the interest of promoting Kiwi short fiction and satisfying my own curiosity, I’ll be interviewing both Pip and Tina via email and sharing our convos.

Today, it’s Pip’s turn.


CC: Pip, I'd like to start by asking you about the subject matter of the book. The recent review in the Otago Daily Times ran with the headline 'Depressing Themes Mar Pleasing Style' — it struck me as a rather shallow reading of the book, particularly as the style and the themes are inextricably linked. Characters in your collection are often trapped, be it in a crappy job and an intractable friendship/romance ('This Is Better'), in rehab or prison ('Like a Good Idea', 'A Noisy Place'), or by illness or their own moral codes. To match this sense of being trapped, these stories are mostly brief and told in a muted tone. It would seem that you have deliberately chosen to focus on bleaker aspects of human behaviour, and I wondered what the attraction for you is with these sorts of stories? Do you think 'depressing themes' are especially suited to short fiction?

PA: I was laughing with a friend the other day about how I always get a surprise when people point out that the stories are 'depressing'. I forget. Terrible things happen in real life, horrible things, and I guess I'm interested in what we do with those things because suffering seems so universal, to all living things. There's a community in suffering, we come together there, well and badly. What I've seen, what I see, is that people work really hard to do the best they can with what they've got and there's something completely compelling to me about that, and well, I seem to be able to express it best when I write about people in trouble. Do you know that Tom Waits' song 'Misery's the River of the World'?

CC: Yep. And for those who might not, here’s the youtube clip:

PA: I love that song, especially that line, that command I suppose, 'Everybody row!' I love that. Speaking of Waits, I also think those dark places make for great humour. I always think the short story is like a joke, the form is very unforgiving like a joke, the timing has to be perfect, the tone and well, I just think humour works well when it's dark. I love 'Nighty Night' and Ronald Hugh Morrieson and David Foster Wallace ('Infinite Jest' is one of the funniest books I've ever read). There's that great hilarity that comes in the dark, that doesn't come from the light. Maybe I am just a miserable bitch baha. I guess there's also that Frank O'Connor thing, The Lonely Voice, I'm not so sure about that.

What do you think? Like your story 'Manawatu', would you describe that as dark? There is something really heroic in it that comes out of somewhere dark. Like that would be a totally different story if it was all, 'I love coming home, everything is so great when I come home.' I love that story.

CC: Thanks. I invited everyone from my work to my book launch, and for the last fortnight I’ve had people say, ‘Some of it’s a bit dark’. Which is true, especially for the first handful of stories, which is usually all people have read before they see me next. It’s funny that you mention ‘Manawatu’. I was talking to a bunch of Whitireia writing students last weekend, and I was asked about the story behind that story: it’s the most autobiographical story in my collection by far. I changed a few details (like the brother’s name from Darren to Warren; and Brisbane for Melbourne), but I did everything that’s in the story up to the point where I’m/he’s standing on the edge of my/his auntie’s balcony, which is when I thought: this could make a good story.

Have you ever had a moment when you went: this is great fodder for a story? Did any of these make it into your collection?

PA: I do remember this one time, it was right in the middle of the MA and, well, you know what it’s like, huffing out stories, words, writing, writing, or looking for something to write about. There was this lunar eclipse and Brent and I were in our back yard looking at this lunar eclipse and I thought, Oh, this is a story, and immediately this weird thing happened where I started talking like I was a character out of a story, and he sort of replied in kind, and it was the strangest thing, everything took on this story-hue, it was like the story was unfolding around me and I was like, Sweet, and I went inside and I wrote it down and it was shit. Like really, really bad.

I love Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that stuff about writing ordinary things in simple language but throwing over them a ‘colouring imagination’, that necessity for getting at how we associate ordinary things in a ‘state of excitement’. I love that I find it really hard to say what I did to an autobiographical story to make it a work of fiction but I can really ‘hear’ when I’ve done it or not. I love that murky land between real and fiction, especially at the moment. And that thing you’re saying about ‘Manawatu’, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I heard this great quote the other day, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ Pablo Picasso said it and yeah, I am just hooked on it at the moment, I’m kind of constantly writing toward it at the moment.

CC: The order of your collection feels crucial to the effect of the stories. A number of stories in the first half of the collection are mirrored in the second half, like the first story 'A Bad Start', which is a rather disturbing vision of childbirth and the first days of motherhood, and the last story in the collection ('Daisy') which takes place after the worst of the sleepless nights are over for the parents; or 'The Kiss' and 'A Village' which both feature soldiers and the partners they leave behind.

The placement of 'Shopping' near the end of the collection seems particularly important. It ends rather abruptly after a mother and daughter avoid an argument in the supermarket. Earlier in the collection this may have fallen flat, but sandwiched by two of the lighter stories in the book, and when contrasted with stories like 'Over Again', the ending feels filled with hope. This must have taken some time and thought to get the placement right. How long did it take you to order this collection?

PA: Yeah, I loved having enough stories to order them baha. I spent hours listening to my favourite albums, listening to how they sounded, you know what I mean? Like that Bright Eyes' album Cassadaga came out the year I did the MA and I listened to it over and over to see how they put the songs together, because that album had that feeling that its whole was bigger than the parts of it. You know it was, what's that word they use - cumulative. So yeah, I listened to that, and (Smog) Supper and Palace Brother Viva Last Blues and then I wrote the titles of all the stories on little bits of paper and laid them on the floor of our flat and shuffled the order of them around until it sounded like one of those albums. And there were heaps of pragmatic things like, Oh no, there's a string of soldier stories, or All the baby stories can't be together, or Polly and Poppy are together. I had written all these personal 'in-jokes' into the stories which made ordering them tricky, but fun. Yeah, it was the most fun thing.

CC: Well, the ordering of my collection was much less rock’n’roll. I listed all the stories I had in an Excel spreadsheet and moved things around, playing with the links between them, while I was working as a temp in Edinburgh and I could get away with that sort of thing. But yes, it was still quite fun. I’m a total Excel geek.

PA: Never underestimate the rock’n’roll quotient of an Excel spreadsheet.

CC: Still on the subject of ordering: do you tend to read short story collections in the order they are presented in the book? Has ordering your own collection influenced the way you read short story collections now?

PA: I do, well I have since I started reading Hempel and Lutz and those Gish-y writers. After I learnt about that whole spark-trajectory thing. But I never used to, I used to read the shortest stories first. It was a hairdressing thing, I was always reading on buses or in between work, so yeah, I never used to. A teacher at high school told us that a short story has to be read in one reading, that's what defined it as a short story, and I wasn't a great reader, and like I say, I was reading them having a cigarette while my client's perms were processing so yeah, I used to look at the index and count the pages and read the short ones first.

CC: While we're talking about reading, 'Everything We Hoped For' is also available as an eBook through VUP and Have you seen your book in digital form? What are your thoughts about digital reading devices and the future of the physical book?

PA: I have seen the eBook, it's nice, they've made it look great. I'm really excited about the whole eBook thing. A lot of the conversations I've heard are about how the devices don't measure up to 'real' books, but, man, have you seen those things? They sit flat! With some of them you can be reading and then think, Oh, I need to make dinner, and switch it to talking and it will read the book to you while you make your cup of soup.

CC: Really? That’s cool. I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks. It started when the bus I took to work was always packed when it got to my stop, so I wasn’t able to read but I could listen to my iPod.

PA: Audio books are great eh? Have you seen the Wellington Public Library’s new digital audio book collection? You can download them from their site, so like the library is open 24/7 now. I love libraries so much.

I've always been interested in electronic publishing. I wrote all these poems in HTML when I was at library school, they were hyperlinked which meant I had a whole other dimension to tell a story in. Everyone's talking about eBooks at the moment but there are some amazing websites out there as well, like Joyce, HTML has been good to Joyce.

I'm excited about the repurposing and remixing of literature that can take place once a work is electronic. One of the best things about publishing a book for me was how it became less and less mine, it started to belong to more and more people and I got to hear their ideas about what it was, and the idea that people can personlise a book even more really excites me. There's so many possibilities once it's electronic in an open format like e-pub. It all sounds quite modern but it kind of gives us a chance to get back to that whole communal story telling thing, where a community owns a story, not an individual.

It's exciting but like all exciting things it's a bit scary too, like I was a bit um, in the beginning I asked myself lots of questions about control, like would I still 'own' the book, what would happen if someone wanted to make an electronic version that linked to all the tourist spots in Christchurch that I mention, would that still be my book? Would I still be able to have some control over that book? I talked to some friends about it and thought about it and well, yeah, I came to the conclusion that really I didn't own the book, once it was read by someone, they owned it, and yeah, that is good, that's all I really ever want.

CC: I understand that you wrote a number of the stories in Everything We Hoped For while doing the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in Wellington, and now you're studying towards a PhD. According to the IIML's website, as part of your PhD project you're hoping to "represent large built forms [such as bridges, tunnels, towers and dams] in new and engaging ways less dependant on the projection of human experience and offering new perspectives to the built, the natural and the animate." This sounds rather different to the stories in Everything We Hoped For. Is it? How has the shift from a workshop-based environment to the more solitary world of the PhD affected your writing?

PA: Yeah, hopefully it's different. It feels different. I've had to learn a lot about a whole new discipline. I knew nothing about engineering at the start and that's been good, that collision of the language I know and the language I'm trying to know. That stuttering baby talk that makes for mistakes which trips my writing in directions I couldn't have anticipated.

The PhD is great for me, I have a fantastic office-mate, and all the PhD students' offices are on the same floor so in some ways it's less solitary than the MA was for me. We have workshops every six or so weeks, which works for me too. The biggest effect of the PhD on my writing is that I feel really committed to this idea, which is good for me. There have been lots of times over the last year that I've wanted to quit, like I just don't feel like I'm a good enough writer to do what I want to do, but there is this great pragmatic thing with the PhD that I said I would do something and every six months someone asks, Are you doing what you said you would do? So I keep going ‘cause I know they'll ask again. I like when writing is like work, do you like that? Like it isn't mysterious and about inspiration or muses or anything like that, it's about hard work, about craft, about finding a way to finish something I've started. My friend always jokes about writer's block, like he says, Imagine if someone said, Oh not today I have surgeons' block.

CC: I’m nodding here. I reckon the unsexy things like discipline, commitment, and perseverance, are probably more important than ideas and inspiration in the final wash up.

PA: Yeah, I feel bloody lucky to be doing the PhD, for the work and the people, the students and Bill and Damien and Andrew (that's my secondary supervisor, he's an engineer who works at the school of architecture). It took me a long time to get into the MA, I applied three times and for years I was working these jobs I hated and trying to fit writing around them and yeah, I never really lose sight of that, like even on the bad days, when I write for hours and get one bad sentence, I always think about how friggin' lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing.

CC: That’s cool to hear. I have plenty more questions, but it’s probably best to leave some of them unanswered. Thanks for talking/typing to me.

1 comment:

M40 said...

Great interview! Love the idea of compiling a book like an album...I'm imagining e-books with a 'shuffle' mode.