The Love School collects more than twenty years’ of Elizabeth Knox’s non-fiction. These frank and revealing essays and talks tell the story of her writing’s beginnings in childhood imaginary games played with her sisters and friends; of leaving home and working at Inland Revenue to earn money to write; of the writing and putting away of the two novels that came before her prize-winning debut, After Z-Hour, in 1987; and of the extraordinary novels which followed. Here is Wellington in the eighties: lives led in now demolished buildings, the pastimes and politics of the period described with vivid particularity, passion, wisdom and a sense of the absurd.
In these pages the reader will encounter the comic: possums who invade and occupy a portion of the author’s Brooklyn flat; the dramatic: the Red Squad at the intersection of Rintoul and Riddiford Streets on Wellington test day; and the mysterious: an angelic stranger in a Venetian back street.
Why I Write
(A short essay from The Love School)
It is quite dizzying to be rewarded for something that I’ve done for years despite many discouragements, including some that were financial or at least employment-related – bouts of debt like persistent ill health, part-time jobs with occasionally bullying managers, or simply a feeling of having failed to help provide for my family. It’s wonderful to earn ‘real money’. And I say as much when asked – how odd, how delightful, how unexpected, I say. Export earnings, I say, congratulating myself on behalf of my country. And, because I’ve always found that facts are more marvellous than mystification, I usually explain how a standard publishing agreement works, regarding money. Whoever I’m talking to then does the sums. I’m innumerate – I can’t subtract, divide or multiply (though my son thinks I only pretend not to know in order to avoid helping him with his homework). What is disconcerting, however, is that if I am asked about money in the course of an interview, and I answer, it’s money that leads the story, it’s money that is the story.
At the Booksellers’ Conference in Christchurch in 1997 I told a famous Kiwi historian about my American agent’s hopes, plans and projections for The Vintner’s Luck. He asked, ‘Elizabeth, have you sold out?’ I had been, till then, showing every sign of devolving into a ‘literary stylist’ and a ‘writer’s writer’. This was OK, I was told, because, after all, wasn’t I writing principally for myself?
I was always baffled by the idea of ‘writing for myself’ – how nonsensical, like the right hand not knowing what the left was doing; the left hand being capable of ambushing and astonishing the right. Or, perhaps, I wrote ‘for myself’ because I was the helpless victim of my artistic metabolism, which I experienced as an obsessive compulsive disorder, the itch I must scratch. How strange it was, I thought, staring at the historian, to go from solipsism to selling out with no territory in between.
Of course really I’m writing for anyone who likes what I write. I am their own. I belong to those people. But when I sit down and quietly get on with it I’m writing for my first audience, a handful of people (you all know who you are). This first audience, if I imagine them together, are seated in the front row of an otherwise empty screening room. Not a cinema, the room is too small for that, and what is on the screen perhaps at first too provisional. These days there is a gap in that row, an empty chair, which I can see from the projection booth even with the lights down. That was where my father used to sit. My father died while I was writing Billie’s Kiss (my next book), but he wasn’t able to read Black Oxen either. In the dedication at the beginning of R L Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae, the writer talks as if to the father who, addled by strokes, is no longer able to follow his work. Stevenson says what I’d like to say in dedicating my next book to my dead father (to the man his family all but lost years before he died). Stevenson says it perfectly, but I’d like to add this – that you don’t just walk away from any of the people for whom you write. You notice them missing. You stop and go back and try to coax and help. You stand still and wait for them to be themselves again. Perhaps you get mad with them. But you wait, you wait. Then finally you walk off and leave them behind. And you find that, while you’ve waited, a dark wood has sprung up around you …
Or for Love?
I can’t imagine myself climbing any nearer to Paradise than those souls Dante meets in Purgatory, whose sins are an excess of love.
When I write I’m like my son, who sleeps with his curtains open, and sometimes dashes into the living room to ask us, ‘Did you see the lightning?’ (It is dark, then he sees a white-rimmed horizon, his sheets, and his own hand burning, but unlike his hand, and the sky, but ‘not a sky colour’.) Writing, I say, ‘Did you see that? Did you, too, see that?’