One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Elizabeth Knox

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel like I should mention right up front that I was a member of the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award committee that selected Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamquake as an Honor Book. And while committee deliberations are always confidential, I think it’s okay for me to say that Dreamquake was one of my bleed on the table, do-or-die books that year, a book that, for me, came out of nowhere, a book I ended up loving So Much that my amazing committee let me keep the “official” copy with the shiny sticker on it.

When I started Dreamquake I was unfamiliar with its author, and I didn’t realize it was actually a sequel until I was almost done, so I was beyond thrilled to find not only an additional Southland tale, Dreamhunter, but a number of other (adult) titles to savor. Her third young adult novel, Mortal Fire, was published just last month to widespread critical acclaim and is absolutely one of my favorite books of the year. If you haven’t had the pleasure, read it immediately, and then check out the short story “A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” and the various blog posts Elizabeth wrote to accompany publication. Thank you, Elizabeth, for taking the time to talk with me, for your thoughtful answers, and for sending such excellent photographs to accompany this interview.

Always Something There to Remind Me

elizabeth knoxPlease describe your teenage self.

I was small, flat-chested, fiery, forceful, and exacting. Depending on how I dressed I could pass as a 13-year-old boy or 20-year-old ballerina (which was useful for getting into R-rated films). I was a burdened teenager. I had to look after too many people.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I decided at 16 that I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t so much wanting to “be a writer” as to spend my life telling stories and walking around hand-in-hand with some narrative. Why I knew that’s what I wanted had more to do with the long and involved narrative game I played with my sisters and a friend than with any relationship I had with books. The game was a detailed, immersive, adventurous other life we had. I spent as much time as I possibly could being other people — people with more control over their very exciting lives.

What were your high school years like?

I went to a big suburban high school, Tawa College, which was four train stops from my home in the beach suburb of Paremata, about 25 km from the country’s capital. Tawa was crowded, conservative, and rugby mad. It was the kind of school where, if you were a girl, and you weren’t beating anyone up, swearing at teachers, or getting pregnant, that was all they wanted out of you. I was some kind of dyslexic. I say “some kind of” because it wasn’t diagnosed. Teachers thought I was lazy, uncooperative, or stupid. My problems were quite mysterious. I could read fluently, but when I wrote it was messy, misspelled and ungrammatical. My “in” channel worked and my “out” didn’t. It was baffling and discouraging.

In class I stared into space and drew game characters and maps and heraldic hoo-hah. I also hung out with my friends — trembling hyperthyroid Jane, and Sally, who was English, loved Alice Cooper, wore heavy stainless steel jewelry and one black glove (and, to be well-rounded, did Kung-fu). And I hung out with my older sister’s crowd, who all became actors and artists, sound technicians and architects. One was gay, out, and very flamboyant — in 1974, before “practicing” gay was decriminalized. He was fearless. And like Kurt Hummel he’d often break into song.

The best teacher I had at high school was Ken Edgecombe. He took me for English and I was lucky to have him in junior and senior years. He was laconic, funny, unflappable, and warm. Everyone liked him.

Elizabeth at 15
Elizabeth at 15

What were some of your passions during that time?

Out of school I played imaginary games, rambled in the rolling hills around the Paremata inlet, swam, kayaked, and made art. I drew and painted before I started writing. I got entry into one of [New Zealand]’s only two art schools. But I didn’t go. Family finances were wobbly, my father was drinking heavily, and my younger sister was in trouble and needed me near.

I used to skip school to go to grown-up movies. I remember going to Dirty Harry four times when I was 15, which I think showed good taste. And I haunted Porirua Library. I’d get off the train on the way home from school and spend the afternoon there. I read Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin and Rosemary Sutcliff and one day strayed into the general fiction and found the book that made me a writer if any book did — Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

Elizabeth (in stripes) and her sisters
Elizabeth (in stripes) and her sisters

My parents were very good parents of young children, but less so of teenagers. My father drank heavily during my teen years, and my mother withdrew into herself. My older sister, an odd, enchanting child of fads and whimsies, turned into a monotoned, monologuing, much less happy teenager. My younger sister had a few terrible experiences and needed watching over. I fought for people and with them. And I found myself holding a flaming sword. Once you have the flaming sword it is quite hard to put it down again.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

I once broke up a gang fight, with Sara’s help, and carried a boy who had been whacked on the head with an axe back to streets and houses and help (the fight had taken place in a pine plantation on a farm). Everyone else ran off! We’d happened on the fight accidentally. The fighters were boys from Cannons Creek. I remember feeling very adult and able.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?

This is the advice I wish someone had given me: if you have troubles you can’t cope with, tell the adults in your life. And if your parents are the problem, or are unhelpful, go on to more distant adults: teachers, aunts and uncles, until someone says: “Let me take some of this out of your hands. And, while I’m about it, I’ll have that flaming sword as well…”

Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?

I can’t imagine dismantling any of my difficult experiences without, at the same time, erasing all the useful, formative ones.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

I miss my parents of course, because they’re both gone now. I remember that I often loved their company, even with all their problems. So I miss helping dad proofread scientific articles full of Latin terms by reading out loud to him, backwards. And I remember watching mum in the garden, at dusk, absorbed in a task she liked to make last as long as possible, feeding garden rubbish into her oil drum incinerator under the apple trees. Her turned back always looked so satisfied and self-contained.

Every Day I Write the Book

dreamhunterdreamquakemortal fireA strong, evocative sense of place and time is a hallmark of all your books, but perhaps especially of your three young adult novels. All three of those books, which take place in the not-so-distant past (the Dreamhunter duet in the early 20th century and Mortal Fire in 1959) are set in Southland, an alternate New Zealand-like island in a slightly-sideways South Pacific. Southland feels real, partly because it’s anchored so specifically in historical events and partly due to the lush description, and I wonder, how and why you chose Southland over a real-world setting? How did you decide what time period to set these stories in, given that Southland is both tied to our world but also full of possibility?

The first bit of any Southland story I wrote was Tziga’s fall from the stagecoach in the Rifleman Mountains and into the Place, an event that eventually turned up in Dreamhunter only as backstory in a history book. When I wrote the coach road scene I was visualizing the unsealed Pigeon Saddle that leads to the Totaranui entrance of Abel Tasman National Park. And, when Tziga Hame fell into the Place, that landscape was the dry white pastureland near Adelaide. So — Dreamhunter first started as a mix of New Zealand and Australia. It had that before I’d thought the whole setting business through. In the end I guess it made sense to decide that the setting was a South Pacific island nation. And to make use of, and make free with, any of the geography and history of several South Pacific nations. That way I could have my story live in beloved and intriguing landscapes without risking niggles from the sort of readers who always know which side of the tree moss grows on. I wish I’d known I’d write more Southland books; then I’d have made sure to set out with everything I might need, rather than trying to stick only to what was in the first story.

I chose to set my first Southland books in 1906 because I wanted a national, but not international, dream-hunting industry. Mainly because I wanted that industry and its culture to have just one vibe, to be a bit like Hollywood in the 1920s, an entertainment boom. Any later than 1906 and there would have been planes to fly dreamhunters and the dreams they carried to other countries and markets. (Because the story opens 20 years after the discovery of the Place, if the setting had been NZ it would be a NZ whose history had already diverged hugely from history!)

Mortal Fire is set in 1959 because I wanted 16-year-old Canny’s mother to be a war hero.

Your books all include elements of social commentary, sometimes prominently as in the treatment of prisoners in the Dreamhunter duet, sometimes quietly as with Canny’s musings on race. But whether they’re front and center or slightly more subtle, issues of class, equality, race, gender, and social justice are integral parts of the stories you tell.vHow does writing literary fantasy affect your treatment of social issues? Does plot or character dictate the social issues you explore, or does a particular social concern or question prompt the development of plot or character?

Writing literary fantasy it seems there is more scope for dealing with social issues when the business of what we think we know about those problems is removed from the picture. I’m interested in the moral questions inside social issues — justice, fairness, the good of being good. If you invent a story that isn’t an allegory but has echoes of historical events, things of roughly equivalent meaning, readers can think and feel about ideas freshly, without feeling talked down to, or told off, or bored stupid (all of which happens far too often in the way young people are taught history).

Take the Dreamhunter duet. We don’t have convict labor in the West anymore, but we do have industries whose profits depend on paying people in poor countries practically nothing.

I think each person’s capacity for empathy is the most fundamental civilizing force in the world. Loving families teach empathy. So does fiction, particularly books, which require their readers to create the world in their heads out of the words on a page. It’s a kind of alchemy where words are transformed into landscapes, and people, and the interiors of people. And literature is the best empathy training, because it is complex, ambiguous, and deep — like life.

Complicated family relationships are another theme you explore often, from the disturbing dynamics of the Zarene’s to the complex relationships between Canny, Sholto, and Sisema, from the strained friendship between cousins Laura and Rose, to the sprawling and intricate ties of the Hame and Tiebold families. What draws you to explore the meaning of family in so many different iterations?

With our imaginary game, which continued in different forms into my adulthood, I had a taste of many lives, and many families. And because the game was shared and it wasn’t just me and my family members doing the inventing, the game’s invented families were various and dynamically different. If I have a “subject” — the bones that all my books are gnawing on — I guess it’s consciousness. What it is like to be human and alive. Consciousness as a subject isn’t separable from identity. And identity isn’t really separable from family (though you don’t have to be like your family!). Also, I prefer young adult books that aren’t entirely populated by young adults as if the world is lunchtime at a high school.

In an interview with Helen Lowe in “SF Signal” you said, “Writing what only you know is a way of conjuring life in a book. What is valuable, meaningful, and urgent to you is more likely than anything else to carry the charge of life into your work. And making what you invent out of your own particular experience of the world […] means the inventions begin by having value, if only to you.” Could you expand on the idea that what “only you know” is what brings a book to life and talk a little about how that notion is reflected in your own work?

In answer I’ll first quote William Faulkner about the germ of his novel The Sound and the Fury.

It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below.

Our lives have things that are profoundly meaningful to us by myriad mysterious associations. Odd memories tied to specific things we care about. Those memories are — to steal an image from Wordsworth — the clouds of glory gathering around us while we’re in the world, and maybe the last things to melt away as we leave it.

There was a story my mother told me during her last illness. She told it first when she could still talk, and again when she was writing in her little spiral-bound notebooks, and finally when she was only able to communicate by typing on her iPad, supporting her good right hand with her weaker left. The story appeared with different details around its core. And its core was this: when she and her younger sister Thelma were living in Invercargill they had a place they used to go: their field. A field with tall, unmown, ungrazed grass. They spent every fine day there. In summer, in the long twilight, they wouldn’t realize they were late home til the Dunedin to Invercargill Express went past, about five minutes out of Invercargill station. The train would go past and they’d run for home. Two children without watches playing in a little wilderness near where they lived.

Mum wasn’t just telling me that story, she was telling herself — telling herself herself. She wrapped this memory — of her sister, the green field, and being reminded of the time — around her as she became weaker and more isolated.

Those fields beside the rail line and girls in pear trees are ordinary — and they’re like magic. They’re Canny’s Master Rune in Mortal Fire, the whole sum of herself.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from Malinda Lo: You’ve been a full-time writer since 1997. Is there anything you’ve learned since then about being a writer that you would tell a new writer starting out today with their first novel?

I’ve learned patience, and that writers don’t have careers, they have a book, then another book, then another book … If they’re lucky.

Elizabeth has contributed a question for the next author in the series, David Levithan. Watch for an interview with him in August.

Born in Wellington, NZ, Elizabeth Knox is the middle child of three sisters. The sisters were close, and always playing imaginary games. By the time Elizabeth was eleven the games had become one game, an on-going saga set in another world, a game she shared with her sisters and several friends. One day, when Elizabeth was sixteen, her father interrupted a discussion the girls were having about the possible results of a secret treaty, by saying, “I hope you’re writing some of this down.” The idea hadn’t occurred to Elizabeth before, and she thought it a very good one. She, her sisters, and her friend began writing letters between their characters, and stories about them. Elizabeth enjoyed writing and decided that this — writing fiction — was what she wanted to do with her life.

Elizabeth has been a full-time writer since 1997. She has published eleven novels and three autobiographical novellas and a collection of essays. Her best known books are The Vintner’s Luck, which won the Deutz Medal for Fiction, Readers’ Choice and Booksellers’ Choice awards at the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and was awarded the inaugural Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, and the Dreamhunter duet. The first book of the duet, Dreamhunter, won the Esther Glen Award and was a 2007 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, and its sequel, Dreamquake, was a 2008 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book and a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults for the same year. Her most recent book, Mortal Fire, was published in June 2013, and an adult literary science fiction novel, titled Wake, is coming soon.

Elizabeth lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her husband, Fergus Barrowman, her son, Jack, and three cats. You can find her at her website or on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.