Emily Perkins is slight, with very pretty features and a warm smile. We met on the sunny morning of Wednesday May 7th 2008 in a conference room at her publisher's office in downtown Toronto.
I: I read a quote you gave, that your new novel Novel About My Wife started with a "kernel of something that made you uncomfortable", but you couldn't talk about it then because the book wasn't finished. Can you tell us now?
EP: I certainly can tell you now. It was a couple things. I sort of had this idea of the character of Ann, but she was very misty at that point. I didn't quite know the type of woman she was going to be but I wanted a sense, what I was writing around, was a character with contrasting elements.
And then I got into a conversation with somebody at a dinner party in London, and I'd been living in London for about eleven years at this point and he made a remark that I found really disturbing about New Zealanders and Australians, and by sort of by implication any former colony... choosing to live in England because, he suggested, we were white people on some kind of white flight from racial issues and cultural anxiety at home.
And I was really infuriated by it because I thought it was such a narrow and arrogant and, from his point of view, a parochial suggestion to make, and I went away sort of steaming after this encounter. And I thought, If it's making me so angry maybe there's something in that. Maybe there's something I can turn around and look at from different angles. I was looking for a novel— I'd had a couple of false starts since my last one, which was called The New Girl— and I was really looking for a story that would have legs, that I thought I could spend a lot of time with because I have small children and by now, I had a much better idea of the work of a novel, the long work of it, and I just had to find the right thing, and in this kernel I thought maybe I've got enough passion about it to build and get a novel working.
I: I never would have thought that— because I was trying to think of what that kernel might be and there were so many possibilities.
EP: Well then, of course, after you start something going and it starts to bubble away, then so many other things find their way into it. You know, the novel begins to act like a magnet pulling other elements and there's no out-and-out autobiography but there are elements I've drawn from my own experience, or extrapolated from my own experience.
I: How did the book change from your initial approach to it. Did it change in any ways that surprised you?
EP: The thing I had to do next was work out who was going to tell the story, and I spent a lot of time doing that, and I've got all these— hopefully I've binned them— but I had third person subjective views of Ann, and was I writing in that close third person way? Or was I going to try and write a more detached omniscient third person who could know the whole story and bounce around different characters? And it just wasn't lifting off...
It was a great moment was when I realized that Tom, the husband, had to tell the story— for a lot of reasons, not least because he's trying to piece together all of this stuff about his wife and in a way he's doing it alongside the reader...
I: A fundamental part of this book is its gaps. Do you feel confident that you know the answers? Or are you, like Tom, taking stabs at it?
EP: No, I do have it. And I had written versions where the gaps were more filled in, but in the end I just thought the thing about Tom is that he is trying to investigate or work out the truth of his wife, but the point of the book for me is that he's left it too late. He had his chance to look her in the eye and be with her in a real way and he was so busy, caught up in himself, romanticizing her and being in love with the mystery and not wanting to know. I didn't want to let him off the hook for that....
I: What was it like writing a first person narrator?
EP: It's the first time I've written something this length in the first person, so for me it was a huge learning experience... I don't believe that the characters do what they want and I'm just following... there's got to be someone pressing the keys on the keyboard and that wasn't Tom, it was me, but at the same time he was quite a formed character right form the start. His voice was pretty much there and his limitations as well.
He's the kind of first person narrator who's trying to write away from himself, trying to write this novel about this wife, but he centralizes himself. It's in his character to do that. So at the same time as I was following that, I was aware that with first person you've got to try to give the reader a break from that endless "I I I" stuff and so I tried to make an effort for Tom to be able to lose himself inside scenes, to describe as though they were happening in the moment— scenes with Ann, with friends, to get away from his own internal [voice].
I: Is that why he was a writer?
EP: Definitely. I wanted to give him the skills that there would be some kind of context where it was plausible that he could be sitting down and doing this.
I: I am curious to know how central Ann's pregnancy is. Do you think this story could have been told without that?
EP: The pregnancy to me is very central because it's a transformative moment for her and it's when the past begins to bubble up for her. It's not her first pregnancy but it's the first one she's carried to term and there's a body mirroring that we all have, we live with, that we can't ignore or we ignore at our peril. And she's having this somatic experience in response to her pregnancy. Without the pregnancy, I'm not sure what the trigger would have been for Ann's other self to come calling.
And also I wanted the pregnancy because I really wanted to write about that stage in a marriage, which is an amazing time when you're having your first child and maybe you've bought a house and you've got this terrifying mortgage and life is really changing... it's a particularly vulnerable, and yet exciting and very tender time and so I wanted to include all of that.
I: The book is packed with a kind of ominousness, there's danger everywhere and some of it is real and some of it might be imagined. Do you think it makes a difference?
EP: One of the things I wanted to explore was the ways we create our own demons, how we imagine demons that aren't there. We're certainly living in a time at the moment where it's easy to be anxious and paranoid and I think that is as dangerous as pretending there's nothing going on. So I did want to play with potential dangers; the danger seems to be from outside in the book but it's coming from inside.
I: I was struck by the passage where Tom describes his parents as "so certain of the parameters of their universe, where normality began and ended." He wants a different kind of life. Do you think he makes this choice? Does anybody actually fit within fixed parameters?
EP: He is much more like his parents than he thinks he is That's part of the reason he really locks on to Ann. He's sees something in her that's beyond his boundaries It makes him feel special to be with her and he feels that he's left his parents' parochialism far behind, but of course he hasn't really. He's limited and that's his fatal flaw— that he can't imagine himself into another person's skin, the way he'd need to in order to save them . And also in describing his parents, I think that's a solid trait of a lot of people. You know "my way is the right way" and I'm always trying to resist that, I suppose.
I: If you look at all your books together, what do you think they tell us about your interests as a writer? What are your fixations in your writing?
EP: I think that if you looked at them altogether, probably— how do I talk about this without sounding like a wanker?— I'm really interested in how we construct ourselves, the building up of identity and how much we live as a known quantity and how much we're mysteries to ourselves and how much we invent ourselves and live in other people. So I think that's the main connection between the books.
I: All of your books also deal with characters and exile— do you think exile is possible?
EP: Is exile possible? I don't know if self-imposed exile is possible in that way, and certainly in Novel About My Wife, ultimately it's not possible. (Pauses) I'd like to think it's possible. I'd like to think we have choices about these things. It's not like these formative selves are our only selves. It's interesting, I've lived in England for quite a while and gone back to New Zealand and you've got to merge the self you were with all of the experience that you've had in a different place. I think location does affect us much more than we think and you can experience freedom by going other places but whether or not that's a permanent freedom, I don't know.
I: As a writer, what have you learned since your first book?
EP: A lot, but I think this is the book that's taught me the most. Or maybe I learned the most between the last book and this book. I spent some time working on a screenplay— an adaptation of someone else's book— and that taught me a lot about structure and plotting and I think I've learned to embrace those technical sides of writing that were mysterious to me when I started out. I've learned... about everything! That I needed to feel so strongly about something in order to dig as deeply as I needed to to make this book work. But when you start a new book.. you feel like you know nothing all over again...
I: You've mentioned that you're addressing characters coming to know themselves. You also address characters knowing other people, or failing to do so. Is this knowing ever really possible?
EP: Certainly in this book Tom is in love with this kind of idea, with his version of Ann. There's a lot that he (in an unacknowledged way) doesn't want to know. This book is saying, we've got to make the effort to know and without that you're going to get in trouble. Even though it's only ever going to take us closer to something. You can't ever know absolutely and Tom can't know some kind of nailed-down, absolute truth about Ann and it's all subjective but I think you really have to try. That's what I like about the human social project— you have to try.
I: You also write about friendships between girls, and couples being friends being friends with other couples. Why are these relationships important for you to portray?
EP: It seemed logical to me. That Tom and Ann have this very, initially, heated relationship, very intense, but they need this friendship with Tonia and Andy, the other couple, to take some of the pressure off. It's like a self made family... I think we choose these mini communities to hang out in; for couples there's a safety in that. Definitely it takes pressure off the one-on-one relationship.
Of course they also act as foils or mirrors or they reflect some other aspect of a person. It would be hard to write a character— I was just thinking about Sabastian Faulk's new book Engleby which is fantastic, about a very singular man who really just exists in his own world, but he's always trying to connect with other people— but you need other characters to reflect each other because so much of action is reaction.
I: In The New Girl there's a line that I've been thinking about a lot, when Miranda says, "The world is not a place of safety" and then Mary smiles and says, "It's safer than you think." That relates to your new novel as well. What do you make of that passage? Who's right?
EP: I'm not sure. I think Miranda, partly— she's not a safe place in herself, and that's what Mary is responding to. "You're young, willfully finding danger out there and maybe you think that's interesting when its less safe", and you've actually got to find interesting in safety, and intimacy that way, and learn about that, which to me is part of growing up, certainly within a relationship. And yet it does relate to Novel About My Wife in the sense that they don't feel safe in this world, they're looking to create their own safe haven in their home. They see peril outside but they're looking in the wrong place.
I: Was safety ever possible for them?
EP: He would have had to change and I don't know that he could change enough.
I: In the introduction to The Picnic Virgin [an anthology Perkins edited in 1999, of short stories by new New Zealand writers], you said that initially you'd wanted to avoid works that were "boring, parochial or smug". And you did mention you become less set about what those ideas were exactly. What do you think about them now?
EP: I think it's good that I wanted to avoid boring work, that I didn't want to put boring pieces in a collection. I probably was reacting to a version of New Zealand that I was anxious about. I was editing that book from London, a book of new New Zealand, writing, and I discovered that the parochialism I was worried would be there in the writing isn't there. And what was great about editing that book was that I got to know what was going on in New Zealand fiction at the time.
I: Where did your assumption of parochialism come from?
EP: I think New Zealand fiction has changed a lot in the past 20 years and it has broadened out a lot, but it was preoccupied— and it's a young literary history— for a long time with defining New Zealandness— who are we? what are we? And always asking that question culturally, to me, runs dangerously close to, Who should we be? What should we be? And that's when things start getting programmatic, or moralistic. And that's when the smugness comes in.
New Zealand, at our worst, we can cope with being so far away from the rest of the world by saying, "Well, we're in the best place in the world, ha ha ha." And I can't stand that. We really need to watch that. So I don't actually think parochialism does exist. I think New Zealanders are more open to New Zealand writing that is not just addressing the question of national identity.
I: How do you name your characters?
EP: Well, Tom and Ann— I wanted nice simple names. With Ann I wanted something that was kind of soft, but was quite plain as well. "Stone" seemed really the right surname for Tom because he's not very porous [laughs] and then "Wells" of course seemed right for Ann. And I'm not trying to name characters in a Dickensian ways, I don't want to be artificial about it... And then the others get named in more random ways. But Arlo, the baby— I wanted a name that sounded lovely, was nice to say. "Arlo, Arlo".
I: You worked as an actor when you were young. When did you begin writing and when did it become a major occupation?
EP: Well I always had written and I was a big reader as a kid and sooner or later I wanted to express things in the same way I was experiencing them, which was through books a lot of the time. And so I had always written, bad teenage poetry and then when I was acting in my late teens, early 20s I was writing little unfinished stories, dialogue exchanges, vignettes, and then acting really didn't work out for me or I didn't work out for acting, and I thought I'm just going to throw in the towel. And I was a bit lost for a while but I was still writing and then there was a writing program at a university in New Zealand and I thought, well it would be great if I could apply to this, and get in, and at least I'd know what I was doing for the next year.
Luckily enough I did get in— and it's funny, I don't know how people choose things for these courses and when I think about the work I submitted, it's just horrifying— but that was a great year You know, it was a lot of fun and we did all these exercises and we had to finish work and I had to finish a story for my portfolio and that story got published in a literary journal there and then a publisher from England read it and was very encouraging and I sent him more work. And that was how my collection of stories happened. And so that was the fundamental thing for me, being in the structure of that course and I mean, now I teach creative writing and I know a lot of people enroll in those courses because they want the discipline, they want to have to finish something, and that was pretty much my reasons too. It was helpful.... Not that I want to flood the world with creative writing students [laughs], but it was a lot of fun. It was great.
I: What were your early influences?
EP: The first book that really affected me was a book by Astrid Lindgren who wrote the Pippi Longstockings stories called The Brothers Lionheart and that was the first time a book made me cry and I had this terribly emotional reaction to it. It's about these three brothers and one of them died and the others had to follow him into the next world, and it was amazing, about reincarnation really. And then aside from the usual children's books, CS Lewis and that sort of thing— I was really into Joan Aiken, Madeleine L'Engle, Ursula LeGuin, and these amazing children's version of great myths and legends that didn't pull any punches...
And then because I was a big reader I found myself reading my mother's books, and so when I was far too young to know what was going on I was reading Iris Murdoch and Kurt Vonnegut and most of it was going over my head but I loved certain things about it. And of course, there's a kind of age where you read Anne Frank's diary and Holocaust literature and books about girls' experience of the Holocaust and reading those books at same age as protagonists was really profound.
I: What sort of authors do you read now?
EP: Now, I've just been really into Patrick McGrath— he's great— a British writer who lives in New York and he writes a really sort of new gothic kind of psychological stuff, delicious. And I love some Joan Didion novels and I love Wide Sargasso Sea with Jean Rhys, And an English writer called Geoff Dyer, who I always feel strange mentioning because I know him, but he's a really great writer. And I still just try to read widely as I can and discover new things, and tastes change. But I love those short story writers too— Tobias Wolf and Lorrie Moore.
I: What are you reading at the moment?
EP: I'm reading Tree of Smoke, a Denis Johnson book, a great book, amazing exciting book about the Viet Nam War. And I'm about to start Richard Price's book Lush Life which I'm looking forward to. But they're both— I'm travelling now— and they're both huge, wrist breakers. I don't know why I brought those ones with me.
(Read my review of Novel About My Wife.)