• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Carl Shuker and Elizabeth Knox. Photo/Ebony Lamb

The best NZ novels of the year: The authors go head to head

In celebration of the Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019, we asked Carl Shuker and Elizabeth Knox, authors of the two best NZ novels, to quiz each other on their respective works.

When we polled our reviewers for their best books of 2019, two local titles kept coming up: Carl Shuker’s A Mistake and Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book. Shuker’s relentlessly gripping novel, which is influenced by his work as a writer in the medical field, is about a Wellington surgeon named Elizabeth Taylor before and after an operating-theatre catastrophe. The Absolute Book is Knox’s 13th novel and the 650-page epic fantasy is among the veteran writer’s most ambitious works (which is saying something), and her first in six years.

The books by the two Wellington writers don’t have much in common, other than a publisher and the feeling that we’ll still be hearing about both after the year has passed.

To mark their status as the Listener’s best local novels of the year – if the Booker judges can declare a draw, so can we – we asked Shuker and Knox to ask each other about their respective works.

Read more: The Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019

Shuker quizzes Knox

Carl Shuker: Vladimir Nabokov described that first knowledge you have a novel to write as a “throb”, “a prefatory glow”. When do you know you have a novel?

Elizabeth Knox: I’m usually trying to do something with a feeling too big for me to simply go on feeling it by myself. The Absolute Book owes its existence to my feeling of coming back to life and pleasure after some bad years. To the end of tough responsibility from which I finally was able to walk away tired, rather than run away scared. That, and how the further I walked, the bigger the world became.

There’s a novel behind mine: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I first read it at 16, and it has always given me courage. It isn’t just the quality of its bookishness I love (there’s a burnt novel manuscript at the centre of the story), it’s also the antic humour, grandeur, silliness and seriousness together, the sense of wonder and enchantment, the deep and real feelings. I wanted to try to write a book like that.

I thought about libraries and what threatens them – insects, light, damp, fire, carelessness and uncaring – and chose my main character, Taryn Cornick, who has written a book about library fires, a book that is doing well and draws all kinds of attention.

Taryn is someone whose professional life has opened out, but whose personal life is a blasted heath. She’s done something terrible and walked away from it. The novel starts with her grief, revenge, crime, book – the experiences, acts and objects that give the story its centrifugal force. Of course, some of the things Taryn pulls towards herself have their own gravities and are whole other worlds with green roads to walk.

Mostly, I wrote this book to make its readers happy. Not just diverted, but happy. The happiness we feel when the thing we’re looking for is something we couldn’t possibly imagine, but also just what we’ve wanted all along.

CS: What is success in novel writing to you? Awards? Getting better? Finishing? Starting again, again?

EK: Success for me is producing a novel that transports its reader. What I like is for a reader to fix me with a scolding, excited eye and say, “Your book kept me up well past my bedtime,” or, “I have a wicked book hangover.”

Whatever its purpose, I want each novel to be a momentous machine, a flood, a slippery slope, a conversation like those mourned by Callimachus, “I wept when I remembered how often you and I/Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.”

Whenever I manage that, I’m happy. And I do mean transportation, not diversion. Carrying people out of themselves is a serious business, even when the aim is only the communication of delight.

CS: It’s astonishing to me to see a writer in what I’ll call your late-middle period having this encyclopedic flowering of interest and scope. That really good essayist, Freud, describes dreams as the condensation of products of incompatible experiences. Is the epic fantasy of The Absolute Book, and all its kinds and categories of people, a deliberate condensation of potentially incompatible genres and fascinations, or is it just a direct reflection of the strange gardens, and inhabitants thereof, that Elizabeth Knox lives and dreams in day to day?

EK: I like to see in what way genres might become compatible. It fascinates me. Tropes in genre give some idea about what kinds of situations, personages, atmosphere a reader might encounter. What I like to do is to understand and appreciate those things, then run off with them, take them into different weather and places where other tongues are spoken. I want the trope to find itself shy and lonely, strange to everything around it and, eventually, able to see that it isn’t shapely and natural and necessary, it’s just it – it is all it’s got, it’s on its own island and looking for a causeway.

Knox quizzes Shuker

Elizabeth Knox: Yours is a book about expertise and vulnerability, and how things go wrong even in a room full of highly skilled people. I’m interested in how you managed the mix of precision and chaos in some of those key scenes.

Carl Shuker: First, I researched the mistake of the title until I knew it intimately, and when I reached the limits of that, I did the dreaming. These records were quite forensic in terms of what was done in an operation and what precisely went wrong. And yet, when it came to different people’s accounts of the mistake – the lead surgeon’s, the anaesthetist’s, the nurses’ – very quickly a Rashomon effect happened. People remembered what happened differently. Often crucial things on which life, death and legal action hinge. Once I had that sketch, I could paint over it. I had enormous freedom then to let my Elizabeth be awful, and good, in ways I felt true for her. She always did the opposite thing and, after a while, I felt her deeply, knew how she would do things. When there is calm, she brings chaos; when there is chaos, she is calm.

EK: Elizabeth is a masterful person, but there are unfinished or postponed bits to her life and self. What made you interested in those qualities in her?

CS: Medicine is a village in New Zealand, and a small one, and it always amazes me how much is determined by personalities. But she is not a generalisation or a distillation – she is in some form a projection of me through the prisms of women I do not presume to know or understand but do remain deeply interested in. As she assembled on the page, she excited and moved me – her furies and righteousness and yet her eagerness to be petted and told, “You did good.” So public and yet so hidden. So determined to succeed, yet also eager to crash and relieve herself of the burden of being herself. There is no time in her life to explore those postponed things; she’d feel it self-indulgent. She’s horrible, she’s deeply moral, and she’s in many ways me.

EK: How did you get to the place where you produced this work, and how do you feel about your writing self having got there?

CS: I grew sick of myself. I grew sick of elaboration and rococo sentences and belabouring the point. Sick of description. Everything bored me. I wanted to write a short, brutal, crystalline New Zealand novel, and I needed a voice. I realised it was brevity, it was awkwardness, it was everything unsaid behind the barest audible monosyllables. I was driving home and heard Yunno What by Sarah Mary Chadwick on RadioActive. I turned it up, and up, and up, and I drove faster and faster until, halfway up John St, I knew this was the sound of it: awkwardness slowly segueing into something transcendently beautiful. That day I discovered “the voice” in Chadwick’s Taumarunui accent. Having got here, I know not where I am. It remains to be seen.

This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.