On Friday afternoon, Tūranga's wonderful TSB space was bustling with fans of Christchurch writers Carl Nixon and Chloe Lane. The two novelists talked of family dynamics and the craft of writing in an engaging and enlightening conversation with Kirsten McDougall.
In Chloe's debut novel 'The Swimmers' , a 26-year-old woman returning home is confronted with the news that her terminally ill mother intends to take her own life.
In Carl Nixon's 'The Tally Stick', three children survive a car wreck that kills their parents and baby sister. What happens next will challenge and disturb their understanding of family forever.
The start of both novels completely hook you into the story, which led Kirsten to ask both writers- what inspired them to begin this way?
For Carl, he wanted to get to the heart of the story- the crash: "The whole story flows from this scene". He wanted to draw the reader in, to keep them asking "what happens next?"
Chloe shared that it took her nearly a year of writing to complete her first chapter. She tried to follow the advice of Jill Ciment who told her:
"The first chapter of a novel should be a novel in miniature- it should capture what you will be teasing out for the rest of the story".
She also observed the importance of just giving your characters something to do, in this instance, having them work together to rescue a goat: "talking to each other with their bodies" - something that could not be achieved by simply having the characters talking together in the car. She also knew it was important that the prickly relationship between Erin and her aunt should be explored.
"Erin tends to forget that her mother has relationships outside of her daughter, a complex internal life Erin doesn't know about or understand...Erin is running out time to get to know her".
Kirsten asked Chloe why she chose to make her protagonist a 26-year-old. Chloe shared she is baffled by her 26-year old self, by the time she wasted, and how she lived her life. Erin was a way of teasing that out, of "making peace with who I was and becoming a better person". And why swimming? Chloe used to be a competitive swimmer and again it seemed a good activity to give her characters to do together. Swimming also spoke to the personalities of the women - it is a fulfilling, pleasurable pursuit, but also an ultimately individual one - "like writing a novel". The women can be "selfish and thoughtless" and in swimming you are "by yourself, in your own head".
Next Kirsten tried to flesh out the central characters in the Tally Stick a little more. Both have such different approaches to their situation and their new life- Katherine adapting to the labor and liking the routine and stunning environment of the West Coast forest, while Maurice stays bitter, pretending to hate even the aspects he enjoys, and rejecting any acts of kindness. Katherine is very much the central figure in the story, and the person who changes most over the course of the novel. Carl acknowledges there is a colonialist theme there, echoes of those who came from England to New Zealand:
"They became shaped by the land, adapting to the harshness of the landscape".
Aunt Susan is also an important figure in the story but Carl admits she emerged initially to stop the story from being "too famous five-sy." He remembered mention of there being something in the car from her at the time of the crash and so "followed the thread to modern day", creating a new 'jigsaw like structure' to the novel. Her life too becomes forever changed by the crash.
Did either of the writers consciously go into their novels with the theme of family? Carl said the theme became stronger and stronger as the story went on- so much so that he found it important enough to include a definition of both family and a tally stick in the book. However, while family is an important theme, he added:
"I don't think the characters reach any conclusions, leaving it to the reader to decide whether or not this was a family".
He conceded that Maurice was certainly used as little more than labor, but Catherine and Martha seem to come close to a mother/daughter relationship.
As to Chloe, she wanted to observe how families become integrated in the roles they play, noting the lazy way we interact with each other- "you don't stop to look at the person in front of you, how we might have changed". In 'The Swimmers' she wanted to see "how the events of the last five days might shake things up". One of her favourite scenes in the novel is between Erin and her aunt - a moment when Wynn tells Erin something embarrassing about herself and, instead of mocking her as she would have in the past, Erin is moved by her willingness to be vulnerable in front of her.
Chloe and Carl ended the session with some excellent replies to audience questions, mostly around the craft of writing. To the question we all wonder "How do you write a novel?" Chloe advised doing a little each day, and compared the act of writing to going the length of a shore, pulling a raft with you and plugging holes until bit by bit, you have a good boat. "It didn't feel like anything was wasted time" she assured us. Carl seconded this, admitting he wrote his opening scene with the crash so many times then eventually moved onto the rest of the story "incrementally filling gaps". He assured us it takes a long time to get there, to get the tone and character but it does fall into place. The brilliant, suspenseful atmosphere of Carl Nixon's 'The Tally Stick' and the resonating, moving narrative of 'The Swimmers' is as inspiring an argument for writing a novel as any I can think of.
Listen: Audio recording of this session
- The Swimmers by Chloe Lane
- Books by Carl Nixon
- Books by Kirsten McDougall
- Read Moata's review of The Swimmers.