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Two minutes with: Sarah Laing

The author and artist discusses her latest novel, The Fall of Light.

Two Minutes with Sarah Laing, author of The Fall of Light
Photo/David White

It’s your first novel set in Auckland (Dead People’s Music was set in New York and Wellington) and has a male protagonist, an architect called Rudy. Any special location or viewpoint challenges?
I deliberately set out to write from a single perspective and to keep the story within a limited period of time. I chose a male because I felt that I would distance him from myself as a character, and I would be forced to create an entirely imagined world. My last book was a mixture of autobiography and invention, and I wanted to move away from my impulse to fictionalise my own experiences. In terms of location, I initially thought that it would be set on the banks of the Whanganui river, but after a holiday out west in Auckland, I decided to set it there.

How did you research the architectural detail?
I used it as an excuse to buy some expensive magazines. Then I tore pictures out and pasted them all over the wall at the Sargeson flat in Albert Park, where I was writer-in-residence. I went to a number of architecture-related exhibitions. There was a spatial design exhibition from AUT, and an exhibition to coincide with Julia Gatley's Group Architects book launch. Elements from both of those exhibitions made it into the manuscript. I also watched youtube clips (there's one for everything) and documentaries on architects – I particularly liked “My Architect”, about Louis Kahn. I read and re-read my sister's book on Brodski and Utkin, Russian artist-architects who design fantastical buildings and installations.

He suffers artistic frustration and has vivid dreams. How much of yourself and your life goes into your characters?
This book explores the frustrations of being a creative-for-hire, which is something I share. There is always an element of compromise when designing for others, and a sense that you are being somebody else’s mouthpiece, not your own. Rudy wants to be an artist but he also needs to make money – I share that too. As for the dreams, I too have dreams of cities, which are distorted by my subconscious. The city on top of a mushroom-shaped island was something I dreamed of as a teenager. But the dreams in this book act as a fairy tale version of Rudy's life, expressing his desires and fears.

Why is there a graphic novella section in it? Is your visual brain gradually taking over your writing brain?
I don't think so. I enjoy the process of writing, which is quite a different process from drawing. I've always loved illustrated books and I felt this great sense of loss as a child when I realised that I’d reached the age when books no longer had pictures in them. I've also been reading lots with my children, and my son particularly likes books that mix prose and comics. I think adults are missing out by not having this genre available to them in a fictional form.

I initially tried writing the dream sequences, but they were a bit alienating. In a way I find it easier to draw fantastical things than to write them – my hand moves more easily there than my language part of my brain. Also I thought it was appropriate, since Rudy is such a visual person, always drawing, always imagining buildings, so I wanted to open up his inner life in a way that didn’t bog down the narrative or cause supreme irritation to dream haters.

As someone who writes and draws, why do you think so few people can do both well?
I think it's a cultural thing. Our education system privileges reading, writing and maths. When I was in high school, I wanted to take art but was advised against it because I was good at languages. But I was still surrounded by role models – my mother is an artist, as is my sister, and art has always been encouraged in my family. My husband tells me that he can't draw, and yet he has taken it up after watching me. He's really good in his own quirky way but he was told he was bad at school, so he didn't do it for years.

You have three children, draw cartoons, do graphic design, tweet, and yet you’ve written three books. How do you find the time?
I don't feel like I do have the time. I am always running. I have hardly any time at all. But I'm also really tenacious and output-focused. My mother jokes that my siblings and I are still wanting to show her our mud pies. I think that's my impulse – I have to make mud pies for people to admire. I'm a bit addicted to having a material object to show for all of my labour.

Do you get the right balance of writer-alone time and family-social?
This year I haven't had any writer-alone time and I'm feeling out of whack! But I am about to start my UoA Michael King writer's residency so I am greatly looking forward to having a Room Of One’s Own and being able to concentrate. It’s going to be hard work – I’ll have to be up at the crack of dawn making sandwiches – but I hope it will be worth it, and that I won’t feel too much mother guilt.

Do your friends and family ever see themselves in the writing – and object to their depictions?
Sometimes friends see themselves in the writing and I feel anxious, because although I may have used them as a starting point, I invariably change them to increase the dramatic tension. I always felt a little embarrassed about a particular story I wrote, using an old flatmate of mine, but inventing a crush that I didn’t have. I didn’t confess that I never fancied him but always wondered if I should’ve. I hoped that he found it flattering, even if it was invention. My family always see themselves in the characters, even if I’ve deliberately set out to invent new family dynamics.

You appear to be very honest in your cartoons. Are there subjects you don’t share and has anyone ever complained about being in your cartoons?
There’s quite a lot I don’t share – I am selective about what I say about my children, more so as they get older. I do like the exchange that you get when you are honest, and people respond to that honesty, sharing their own experiences. I think writers have traditionally cultivated this air of mystery, of difficult genius, of sureness about their true calling, and I want to present a different reality, a not-quite-so-self-assured one. There is lots of anxiety and insecurity that surrounds the business of writing. There’s lots of life and work too – it’s rare that a writer can work full-time. So yeah, I want to demystify it a bit. I’ve actually found being honest in my comics a very useful thing – I am quite a reserved person but they bust me out of my shyness a bit, and break down a few of the social barriers I might have previously felt. My family so far are very tolerant of being in my comics, but sometimes friends say to me “you’re not allowed to write a comic about this!” But if I do include them, they are usually quite pleased.

You recently exhibited work in Auckland alongside other cartoonists. Is cartooning here healthy?
Yes, it’s healthy – the Chromacon festival also showed that there was a large appetite for comics and illustration. There’s also a resurgence of zine culture. I would like to see more women cartooning – it’s still quite male-dominated.

Any special writing aids – dictionaries, pencils, notepads, post-it notes, ear plugs …?
I do like quiet. I have to wait until everyone is out of the house until I write. But other than that, no. I just type on the computer and flick over to facebook and twitter far too often.

Favourite authors, local and foreign?
I find that question very difficult! I am a complete serial monogamist when it comes to fiction. And I know far too many NZ authors to be able to answer the first question easily. But if I’m pressed … the living writers I admire the most locally are Elizabeth Knox and Emily Perkins. I love Anne Enright, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell, Kelly Link, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Sylvia Plath, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Jeanette Winterson, Nicole Krauss, Siri Hustvedt, Myla Goldberg, Miranda July, Maile Meloy, Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lydia Davis, Gabrielle Bell, Alison Bechdel, Brecht Evans, Marjane Satrapi, Vanessa Davis, Jhumpa Lahiri … the list goes on.

And you’ve just started a residency to write a graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield. Why?
I’ve long been fascinated by Katherine Mansfield. I share this obsession with a lot of people, as evident by the biographies and movies already made on this subject. A graphic novel demands a different kind of narrative – a far more concise one. I’ll be honing in on particular aspects of her life. I’m quite interested in her transgressive behaviour – how she was like a punk in her time, how she had affairs and dabbled in the occult, reinventing herself over and over. I’m interested in how she defines what it means to be a writer in New Zealand, and how central she is to the notion that New Zealanders are good at writing short stories. The graphic novel is going to dovetail into a personal account, and I’ll use her experiences to explore my own parallel ones.