Award-winning writer Laurence Fearnley often gets a third of the way into a book before she comes to fully know the characters she has created.
For almost 20 years, Laurence Fearnley has been making a name for herself as one of New Zealand’s most admired authors. She’s written nine novels, among them Edwin and Matilda and The Hut Builder; the latter won the fiction prize at the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards. She’s also held a handful of residencies including Otago University’s Robert Burns Fellowship. When her 10th novel, The Quiet Spectacular, is published in July, the Dunedin-based author will have done a book a year for the past four years. Little wonder she’s looking forward to a break.
“The year before The Quiet Spectacular, I ghost-wrote Lydia Bradey’s mountaineering autobiography, Going Up is Easy. In 2013, I wrote Reach, and in 2012, I finished my creative writing PhD, which included The Hut Builder.”
Fearnley was born in the Canterbury town of Fairlie. Her parents were English immigrants from Manchester in the 1950s, worried about the threat of nuclear war; they chose the area because they were both keen climbers and skiers. The family later settled in Christchurch, making regular trips to the mountains.
Fearnley’s outdoor adventures partly shaped the young writer’s outlook. “When I was young, I desperately wanted to be an actor and I went to drama classes at the Canterbury Children’s Theatre every week for nine years. But one day, the boy I used to carpool with asked me out on a date and I was so mortified that the only way out of the tricky situation was to stop going to class – which I did and I never went back. It almost broke my heart and that’s when I started writing instead.”
Following school, Fearnley propelled herself towards art history and American studies. She graduated with an MA from Canterbury and had a stint as a curator at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt before she went travelling. All the while, she was filling notebooks and journals with ideas for stories. In 1998, at about the same time she married her immunologist husband, Fearnley published her first novella – The Sound of Her Body – before graduating with another postgraduate degree, this time from Victoria University’s creative writing programme.
“It was great being surrounded by writers,” she says. “If you’re a writer, you might be surrounded by readers but rarely writers, so for that it was a remarkable experience.”
That said, she’s not someone who needs constant feedback. “I’m quite happy working on my own, at my own pace.”
Like many successful writers, Fearnley adheres to a routine: waking at 5.30am, she reads in bed “for pleasure” for a couple of hours, then answers emails and walks the dogs. “Once my son goes to school – he’s 14 so pretty independent – I write.
“I try to write 1000 words a day, although sometimes you feel it’s the last thing you want to do, so I might start by going over what I wrote the day before – but I need to be writing every day to keep the momentum up. And I don’t like too many interruptions. If there’s a choice between writing and having fun, I’ll choose writing till I’ve earned the fun.”
Locations feature strongly in the novels, in which the landscapes often operate as characters. “I’ve been working through different landscapes – coast, mountain, farmland, Antarctica, wetlands – although I haven’t done bush yet.”
Real characters are equally important, of course, and the people in her books feel painstakingly researched. “It’s like acting, I think. You get into character. A lot of my books start off in my head with the tone I want to set, in a very general sense: I want to write a sunny book, or a gloomy book, or a bittersweet book. In some ways Edwin and Matilda was seen in terms of photographic contrasts between light and shadow, whereas Reach began with an idea of layering and weight, almost like sediment.
“Then I’ll think about characters, quite isolated characters. Then I’ll imagine them walking around, on streets or hillsides; I’ll see them as these walking objects, not how they look or how they dress, but as shadowy forms. About a third of the way in, when the characters become more real, I’ll probably go back and rewrite the first 50,000 words, to make the character at the start fit the character at the end of the book, when I know them better.”
The Quiet Spectacular’s narrative pillars are three central characters, very different yet inextricably bound. “I began by imagining I was knitting a jumper with big needles and chunky wool. The writing is looser than my other books. And I wanted a book with almost exclusively female characters – I’d read that those books don’t do very well, so I thought, ‘That’s something I have to do then.’”
Loretta is a school librarian, “someone whose intense interior life feeds her professional persona”; Riva is a businesswoman and nature-lover who’s moved on from her husband and her successful American-based outdoor clothing empire to be closer to an ailing sister. “I liked the idea of a very successful woman who’s stepped aside from business to start a wetlands sanctuary,” says Fearnley.
The third female, Chance, is a student at Loretta’s school, whose mother is dominating her with books. “She is intimidated by books, rather than being one of those precocious kids who finds escape and peace through reading.”
As for the break Fearnley intends to take between books, it’s unlikely to be a long one. “For my next novel, I picture something in sepia tones or shades of brown and grey. That’ll be enough to direct me.”
THE QUIET SPECTACULAR, by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House, $38)
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