Laurence Fearnley interview

by Siobhan Harvey / 16 July, 2011
Laurence Fearnley’s novel The Hut Builder has just won the fiction award at the NZ Post Book Awards. She explains how it grew out of her stubborn reaction to being told her writing was “too New Zealand”.
Dunedin author Laurence Fearnley should be on a high. [At the time of this interview she had] been shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction. The novel in question, The Hut Builder, tells the story of a budding mountain climber, Boden Black, his

1950s adolescence in the Mackenzie Basin and his association with influential New Zealanders such as Ed Hillary and Charles Brasch. The book is already a best-seller. The cachet of the shortlisting – Fearnley’s third where the country’s top literary prize is concerned – will surely boost The Hut Builder’s sales and its author’s literary standing.

Talk to Fearnley, though, and the fraught relationship between this novel and her status as a writer is quickly revealed.

“Writing The Hut Builder was partly a reactionary thing,” she admits. “When my sixth novel, Edwin and Matilda, was shortlisted for awards, I convinced myself it must be a good book. Yet I couldn’t get it published overseas. In fact, none of my books have been published overseas. When I asked why, I was told what I write is ‘too New Zealand’ for international audiences.”

She sighs. “I reacted strongly to that. I know I should have listened to the feedback then written a book set overseas, which might have reached audiences in Europe and America. But I thought, ‘Stuff you, I’m going to write a book which is

so New Zealand that anyone who isn’t a New Zealander won’t understand half of it.’”

Anger seems an unlikely literary motivation for an author who’s 1.62m tall, thinly built and softly spoken.

“I was being childish. Perhaps, in choosing to set a novel in a rural South Island landscape, I went the wrong way. But I don’t think so. The Mackenzie Country is important to me. My parents took me camping and tramping there when I was very young. One of my strongest childhood memories is coming up out of Burke’s Pass and looking across the Mackenzie. We used to drive on to Pukaki. I fondly remember Five Pound Note Island nearby. We’d go to the Ball Glacier to ski, camp at Foliage Hill or tramp up to Ball Hut.”

Fearnley’s tone grows passionate when she speaks about the New Zealand landscape of her novel and childhood.

“Because of the growth of the shelter belt, that view out of Burke’s Pass doesn’t exist. The dam flooded Pukaki and Five Pound Note Island. The glacier retreated until there’s nothing left of it. Foliage Hill is a shingle car park. Ball Hut has

been destroyed. My sadness at such loss drove me to write The Hut Builder. These days, whenever I go through the Mackenzie, my heart sinks. I know that because we’re not addressing the big environmental issues the Mackenzie’s suffering.”

At first, the fine line between fervour and fury Fearnley navigated when writing The Hut Builder led her to plan the book as a memoir.

“I wrote about 40,000 words of it. It was about the times I’ve spent camping. Not just in New Zealand, either. In my twenties, I took a one-person tent on a bike trip from Athens to Brittany. In 2003, when I was an Arts Fellow, I stayed in polar tents at Antarctica. But I started to get bored by how much of ‘me’ was in that memoir. So I transferred those ideas about tents, huts and memory into a novel.”

Even then, Fearnley realised that to get the best out of the book and her intensity she needed distance.

“Writing about history took me to another place. It’s somewhere I’d much rather be. Of course, I made it easier for myself because I chose to evoke the history of the countryside. A big plain full of tussocks might change over 40 years but you can pretty much imagine it was a paddock full of tussocks back in the 1950s. Whereas if I’d set the novel in Christchurch, I’d have had to consider trams, advertising, newspapers, what people were wearing and so forth.

“Also, our recent past is a quiet place where people read books at night, did jigsaw puzzles or walked the streets. I enjoyed the sparseness of writing about that time. It was a good place for me to create characters that can be alone without ever being lonely.”

The loner in question, of course, is The Hut Builder’s hero, Boden. Here again, distance was key.

“I like writing male characters, especially someone like Boden, who’s an outsider but not removed from reality. He’s quiet, introspective and has limited social interaction. I find writing male characters less complicated than women characters.

Being a woman, all the stuff that’s inside me clutters up my objectivity. When I write women, I see the bad in myself. But when I write men, I see the good in everyone.”
The Hut Builder’s shortlisting has brought all Fearnley’s sensitivities back to the surface.

“I didn’t expect it. If you’re cool, you don’t say that it’s a big deal, but it is a big deal. I know that on awards night, with five minutes to go before the announcement, my heart will be beating fast hoping mine is the name the judges read out. Also, because I doubt my writing, I never allow myself many moments when I tell myself I’m good. Being shortlisted is one of those times when I can tell myself, not that I’m good, but I’m not as bad as I think.”

Once the awards are over, no doubt Fearnley will be turning her hand to a new novel set in New York, London or Paris. She smiles. “Yeah, and it’ll have a woman heroine. And she’ll be happy. Every time I start writing a novel, I tell myself that my protagonist will be cheerful, then something goes wrong.” She laughs.

“That said, I’m not writing a novel at the moment and I’m feeling really anxious about that. Usually, I spend a year writing a novel, then the following year thinking about the next book. I’ve written a novel each alternate year for the past decade. I wrote The Hut Builder two years ago but haven’t started another novel yet. If I don’t sit down and write one thousand words a day, I feel sick with myself.”

But there’s the memoir?

“Yeah, that’s such a nice book. It’s not like one of these gimmicky memoirs that follow the trail of Genghis Khan or Byron; it’s more about the aesthetics of pitching a tent and of being in a tent when black robins step on it and you hear their patter and see their silhouette through the canvas.

“It’s nature writing, really. I’d like to get back to that. Writing a novel empties me out. But writing that memoir filled me back up. So I’ll definitely finish it, even if I have to self-publish it.

“Actually, I have this really cool idea for it. You know when you open up a book and stand it on its edges it can look tent-shaped? That’s what this book would be like, and I’d have a little canvas cover for it so the reader could peg it out like a tent.”

Then, with a further laugh, she adds, “Now that would be a really unpublishable work, wouldn’t it?” Given Fearnley’s thoughtfulness and fortitude, perhaps not.

THE HUT BUILDER, by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $40)

Next week, we ask a book group for their verdict on The Hut Builder and the two other fiction finalists in the New Zealand Post Book Awards; award winners are announced on July 27.
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