One question I’m often asked as a writer is what do I write with? Pen? Pencil? Laptop? A one-word answer would be the easiest, but the truth is that what writers really write with is themselves. Their minds, imagination, their particular way of looking at and seeing things, their sensitivity and perceptivity and vision. They themselves are their most vital writing tool.
When I wrote the books I’ve written, I was so concentrated on my dream-world and characters and what they were doing that I never paid too much attention to what was in front of my own nose – what some would call reality. I never gave any thought to where I happened to be when I wrote each book, let alone where the idea for a book came from inside me. Wherever I had chosen just seemed a practical place to plop myself down in a chair, somewhere where there was a hard surface that allowed me to spread out some papers and set down my laptop. It’s only now, looking back, that I start to see some of what I didn’t see back then.
My first novel, Primordial Soup, was written in the Chantrerie Saint Rieul in Senlis, France. It was what was left over from a fourteenth-century monastery, where the monks used to gather to sing. The pale, sometimes pinkish hue of the stone, the high rafted ceilings, the two gargoyles perched on the exterior of the corner where I kept my small bed, the small tower capped with a conical roof… Oscar Wilde might have understood my willingness to brave every inconvenience to live amidst such beauty. Which might explain why I ended up writing the whole novel cowering in its small kitchen. It was the warmest place. It had a table and I could turn my chair sideways and rest my back directly against the radiator. Writing was sometimes literally squashed between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Perhaps it’s no wonder the novel explores food – tastes, textures, scents – and its relation to life so intimately that it leads to other feelings… to one’s questioning the fine line between life and food, between food and flesh, between flesh and sexuality, mortality and spirituality. What other result could have come out of imprisoning oneself for years in a small, medieval kitchen?
Come to think of it, my second novel, Caging Skies, was also written in just as crazy a location, the Memorial Museum for Peace in Normandy. The museum’s library was terrifying stocked, chock-full, with enough specialised books and documentaries to swallow me for hours, days, weeks, months and eventually years in the stinking, skeletal gullet of modern war. Perhaps even more importantly it was well heated – my jersey could even come off. (Another question I’m often asked is: What is the hardest part of writing? My answer: Moving my arm with four layers on.) Above, a Hawker Typhoon dangled dangerously from a trio of taut wires, while a soundtrack of the heavy drone of bombers and the blasé pitch of air-raid sirens would go off every 5 minutes. Or so it seemed when I was writing. It might have only been every 10. To come or go each day I took a circuitous path where life-size photos of some of those deported stood randomly left and right and by some special effect each one would fade and disappear as I neared and passed by. WWII couldn’t have felt closer. I believe anyone who reads Caging Skies will feel the gloom, but also the potent need for love and passion for life that arises from such darkness and death. But at the time, I didn’t give any thought to where I was writing either or where any of this was coming from. I just took it page per page, planting smalls facts into a turbulence of fiction with as much feeling as I could. I think we humans simply do things that need to be done, as we can, moment per moment in the varying course of our lives, and then only afterwards do we look back and make stories, drawing structural lines, connect dots. Perhaps to give such moments more meaning, some dimension or essence they deserved? Perhaps it really takes years to fully understand some facets of even a tiny moment.
British Ferries cradled my family and me (the rocking part too) from Normandy to the UK, a Boeing 787 from London to Auckland. Random House NZ took Caging Skies and in such a bright, beautiful country, with breath-taking landscapes and amazingly friendly and sensible Kiwis, having to close my eyes and go back to that other world was no easy task. War? Destruction? It took four months for our 12 cubic metre container to arrive. We opened the boxes one by one. Some objects I’d completely forgotten about and cherished anew. Others didn’t seem so necessary any more and were discarded. A couple were put to another use than their original, while several were packed up again for use later, somewhere down the line. It was in a similar spirit that I went through the manuscript again.
The where of writing only got tougher with a growing family, and at last landed me on the sixth unused chair of the dining room’s oval table, wedged between wall and Thomas the Tank Engine track, children running through to get snacks and tumble around on the floor, so that it all brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own more than Oscar Wilde. Why there? In a typical character NZ bungalow built in the early 1900s, once again it was within arm’s reach of the one vital wood burner. Whenever I got up to stretch my legs, careful not to put a foot down on Percy, I often put away a sock or hung a basket of wash outside. These socks were growing fast, as were the baskets of wash. Pondering on the emotion core now – the obsession with which A Can of Sunshine explores the passing of time, as much in relation to self as family and family dynamics – I’m starting to think that at the end of the day maybe I’m not so impermeable as I’d thought to my surroundings and where exactly I write will eventually find its way into what it is I am writing. Interestingly a few months ago I started on a historical New Zealand work in which a few crucial scenes will take place in Antarctica. There is an Artists to Antarctica programme that could get me to see the endless expanses of pristine whiteness and Scott Base first-hand. But considering my propensity to get chilled to the bone in temperate climates, I think I might do just as well here, this time.