Quick Ten with Elizabeth Knox & Fergus Barrowman

Thursday, 22nd July, 2010

Welcome to my new interview series "Quick Ten". Once a month I'll be talking to some of my favourite people about the creative process.


Elizabeth Knox photo credit Bruce Foster Fergus Barrowman 
Photo Credit Bruce Foster

My first victims - best selling author Elizabeth Knox and publisher Fergus Barrowman are New Zealand's hottest literary couple. They answer questions about what makes great fiction, taking risks, what makes publishers keep reading your manuscript and - most importantly - Zombies vs Vampires.

You can follow Elizabeth and Fergus on Twitter or become a fan of Victoria University Press on Facebook.

There are affiliate links in this interview. I’ve found The Book Depository to be the cheapest and quickest place to find books and recommend them without hesitation. Free delivery anywhere in the world is an amazing thing.

First up – Elizabeth:

HH: The wrong stuff - are accidents and mistakes good material?

EK: So, accidents – I don’t know that I recognise them anymore. I’m working with the silent partner of my subconscious and nothing feels wholly accidental or deliberate. I do plan, but the planning is mostly a way of tricking myself into proceeding with the story. It’s like 1) Imagine the story. 2) Write the story you haven’t imagined.


HH: If you could transform into any kind of supernatural being for 24 hours what would you be?

EK: I’m thinking this would work like a fairytale wish and you’d lose any ongoing benefit from the experience, so rather than being someone wise, who could come away from the 24 hours with insights, I would be some creature who could experience pure physical pleasure for that period. Something untroubled, with wings.


HH: How many projects do you have on the go at any given time?

EK: I have three things on the go at the moment (though one is illicit). I’m always writing notes up to five possible projects ahead. I have more ideas than time at the moment (and have always had more than I’ve had confidence to get on with some of them!)


HH: How is your personal library organised? Is it organised?

EK: Once in a long while Fergus moves books around from room to room. It is like the fall of empires with maps being redrawn. The poetry and essays stay in my office – they are like power points, I need to plug in frequently.


HH: How do you feel about taking risks?

EK: I just do it. Deciding not to take risks would be even riskier.


HH: Do you ever suffer from fear & anxiety – if so how do you deal with it?

EK: This question caused loud and hysterical laughter in my household where it is understood that I am a racehorse and can often be seen cavorting nervously sideways with my eyes rolling. Is cavorting nervously sideways dealing with it?


HH: What do you say to "Genre Critics" who just want you to write straight forward "literary fiction"

EK: I just say, persistently and gently, to those it’ll help as well as those who don’t and won’t get it, that "literary fiction" is a genre – it is literature that matters most to me, and literature can appear in any genre.


HH: What do you wish people would ask you in interviews?

EK: I’d love to answer more really writerly questions about story and syntax, rhetoric and imagery, asked by some really noticing critic. David Larsen did a very good job in the forthcoming book of interviews Words Chosen Carefully (I really don’t know about that title ...)


HH: Anymore movie deals in the works?

EK: Yes. It could be very exciting if it comes to anything. Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. Twilight producers Temple Hill.


HH: Who are you reading at the moment?

EK: Gawd, I read ‘feeding’ and was counting up teenagers… Um. Reading. In the past two weeks I finished The Vagrants by Yuyin Li, and Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones. On my iphone I read Tim Powers’s Three Days till Never, and listened to an audio book of the brilliant Megan Whelan Turner’s King of Attolia (I wish I’d written those books!). Now I’m starting Jane Smiley’s Private Life. So, for the genre police that’s literary fiction, YA, fantasy, YA, literary fiction. Amen.


Now on to Fergus:

HH: What makes you put down a manuscript?

FB: If it sounds like literature.


HH: What makes you keep reading?

FB: A tingle of pleasure, or the niggling anxiety that it might be better than it appears to be (which hardly ever comes to anything).


HH: What's the most common mistake new writers make?

FB: Thinking they can ask for the reader’s attention; they have to win it.


HH: What advice do you have for how to deal with rejection slips? Should writers get thicker skins?

FB: Try to remember that this rejection means only that this editor rejected this work for this publishing list or periodical at this time.


HH: If you were a font what would you be?

FB: Baskerville Old Face.


HH: How do you feel about being described as a “Gatekeeper”?

FB: Patrick White described Beatrice Davis (longterm Angus & Robertson editor) as “the bottleneck in Australian literature”, which I thought was a great accolade.


HH: Do you think the old style relationship between editors and writers has gone for good and has anything replaced it?

FB: I’m not sure that that “old style relationship” ever existed in any general sense. Editors have always had an uncomfortably two-faced role, advocating for the writer to publisher, imposing the publisher’s demands on the writer. Close and transforming working relationships between writers and editors have always been rare good luck. They will continue to happen, whether the “editor” is on the publisher’s payroll, or is a freelancer, or is hired by the writer, or is the writer’s agent – or is in “the cloud” in some position that we can’t quite foresee. In the end, the editor works for the reader, and is paid by the reader.


HH: Can people learn how to write a prize winning book, or is it natural born talent? In other words -Are writing schools a good thing?

FB: No one can be taught how to write a good book who doesn’t already have it in them, but a good school can help someone find the technique or self-confidence or self-knowledge they need to realise that book. Of course the majority of writing students will not go on to have careers as published writers, but they are as likely as students in any other humanities course to have had experiences or learned things that will benefit them in their future lives. Or not.


HH: Who are you reading at the moment?

FB: Not the right thing! Jose Saramago’s Notebook, which has lovely things in it but is too dominated by political certainties (not Antonio Lobo Antunes or Clarice Lispector). Peter Temple’s Truth, which is entertaining but rests too heavily on genre conventions (not Elmore Leonard).


HH: Zombie vs Vampire – who would win?

FB: I have consulted widely. Elizabeth says it’s like lions and tigers. One on one the vampire would win. In a group fight the zombies would win because they would cooperate. Jack [their son] says it depends which World you are in.



Share |


I am at one with this comment: "Is cavorting nervously sideways dealing with it?" And Jack is wise beyond his years ;-)

<p>haha, yes, me too! &lt;3</p>

Fergus, dear old thing, I think you should demonstrate one- fiftieth of Peter Temple's talent before you make sneering judgements. Your career demonstrates that you simply don't have the equipment to comment.

I didn't think that was sneering! Perhaps I should have said "hugely entertaining" or something, and saying that a crime novel falls a little short of Elmore Leonard is far from damning in my book. Seriously, though, I just read two Temples in quick succession, and really enjoyed and admired them both, The Broken Shore slightly more than Truth. But in the end, don't they both take place in a kind of crime fiction fantasyland, in that they require partial suspension of belief about the way the world works, as well as the particular events of their stories?

What I should have said: being called a gatekeeper makes me feel like a French private defending the Maginot Line.

I hope After Z hour is made into a film - love that dark and rainy story.

<p>True! And one of Elizabeth's that people don't know so well (though they should!).</p>

good interview....i now have more book titles to add to my reading list.....

"Is cavorting nervously sideways dealing with it?" I certainly hope so. Wonderful interview, Helen.

Fergus pontificates about dealing with rejection slips. But he is notorious among NZ authors for never sending any. I have spoken with many contributing authors who have submitted mss to VUP and have been left hanging in the ether with no communication from Fergus at all. A simple 2-line standard rejection slip is only common politeness. Not responding to contributers who have favoured your business may be perceived as arrogant in the extreme.