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Wellington writer Elizabeth Knox. Photo/Mike White.

How Elizabeth Knox's new book brought her back to life

It’s been six years since Elizabeth Knox’s last book. There are lots of reasons why – and many reasons why she thinks her new novel, The Absolute Book, is the best thing she’s written. Mike White talks to Knox about difficult times in the past, coming back to life, and the exciting projects yet to come. 

It wasn’t like this, 10 years ago. Things became truly awful then, one ghastly misfortune after another for Elizabeth Knox. Life hurling shit at her, the Wellington writer trying to cope, trying to stay standing. Her mother was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Her older sister suffered mental health issues. And then her brother-in-law was mown down by a drunk truck driver in the Cook Islands and killed. All that in 2009 – as well as the disastrous movie of her novel The Vintner’s Luck, which betrayed the story and left Knox devastated.

“That year, that crazy, crazy year,” recalls Knox. “Gastric bleeds, cellulitis – I was so sick. God, it was just too much, too much.”

Nothing got easy quickly, her sister remaining unwell, her brother-in-law’s killer being tried for manslaughter and jailed, and Knox helping care for her mother till her death in 2012.

“It’s amazing that Fergus and I survived it,” she says of the stress on her marriage to publisher Fergus Barrowman.

In 2013, her novel Wake and the young adult book Mortal Fire were published, their completion having been tandem distractions from everything else going on for her. “I was feeling very crushed by the time my mother died. About a year or so later, I was really depressed. And that would have been about when I started writing The Absolute Book – it was part of my coming back to life.”

An epic fantasy, spanning several worlds and 650 pages, Knox thinks it’s the best thing she’s done. The Vintner’s Luck, published in 1998, remains special among her 13 novels; she’s very proud of Dreamhunter and its sequel Dreamquake, and also Wake. “But The Absolute Book is my favourite book. I think it’s the most me. It’s got the most life in it. It’s fun, it’s crazy – it’s just playful.”

It was also a release, after years of caring for others and feeling she wasn’t doing a good job of it, but being left exhausted all the same. “I was writing something that I was having a hell of a lot of fun writing. It was the spring coming up again.”

There had been tough and wretched times for Knox before then, too. Her first two novels went unpublished, their imaginative plots half a step beyond conformity and comfort. And even when her work began to be released, some critics and publishers struggled to understand or accept her. After an underwhelming reception to Glamour and the Sea in 1995, discouragement swallowed self-confidence. “I am defeated, and a failure,” she wrote in her journal. “I think I shall give up. Why keep imposing failure on my supporters?”

Financial strains deepened her difficulties: there wasn’t enough money for the next crèche bill, not enough bedding for visitors, and a $200 shortfall for her tax bill.

But then, the fevered dream that led to The Vintner’s Luck, which was such a success (more than 60,000 copies sold in New Zealand, published in 13 languages and many English language editions overseas) Knox has been able to write fulltime ever since – an extraordinary thing in New Zealand.

Knox admits her mid-90s threats to abandon writing were hollow. Even if The Vintner’s Luck hadn’t been a bestseller, “I would have written something else, I would have kept getting ideas to write and would have kept writing. I just love writing.”

So she has carried on – everything done in longhand, pencil in an exercise book, then dictated using voice recognition software to prevent occupational overuse syndrome in her hands flaring again. She works in bursts rather than to a daily timetable, ferociously attacking blocks of plot from a small desk in her home. She’ll share progress with Barrowman, and with a group of Wellington writers, including Sarah Laing, Kate Duignan, Emily Perkins and Anna Smaill, who meet every few weeks at her house. They’re honest, Knox is trusting, and the feedback helps. “You take all the help you can get – it’s fantastic.”

Despite her experience, Knox, 60, isn’t so assured or adamant that she won’t change something if it isn’t working. And herein lies part of the reason why it’s been six years since her last book.

At that time, she planned to write a memoir encompassing the triple family disasters that had struck: her mother’s illness, her sister’s health, and her brother-in-law’s killing. “But I wasn’t ready to. I finished something – a whole book – but I’ve thrown away half of it. And I started again, because I just thought, ‘I haven’t got this right.’”

Read more: Elizabeth Knox describes her writing day

Eventually, she realised the story of her brother-in-law’s death didn’t meld with those of her mother and sister. So she removed that section entirely, and is turning it into a separate piece for her next collection of essays. The remaining family material from that awful year and beyond is now at the heart of the memoir, which Knox hopes to complete this year. It’s called Night, Ma – the words Knox used to sign off her text messages to her dying mother at the end of each day.

There’s also a young adult novel, Kings of this World, which is two-thirds finished, and The Angel’s Reserve, the third part of The Vintner’s Luck trilogy, which Knox says is about a quarter done.

“Fergus is very nagging about that one, and I have people who are really waiting for it – and I am going to finish it. Because then I can begin the thing I’m raring to start. I’ve got this great idea for a ghost story…”

Knox with one of her cats, Patrick, named after British writer Patrick O’Brian. “I always listen to criticism and not praise,” she says. “It’s clearly my upbringing.”
Knox’s imagination is rarely stilled. It was something poet Bill Manhire noticed the first time he met her, in a tutorial at Victoria University he was running as part of a paper on Romantic and Victorian poets. “And I got an essay from her on Tennyson that was kind of beyond-belief interesting – probably more interesting than the lectures I was giving on Tennyson.”

Around the same time, Knox enrolled in Manhire’s Original Composition class, and demonstrated her promise writing fiction. “Elizabeth was remarkable even at that stage,” recalls Manhire. “She was just slightly oblique to reality, or something. If you asked her to describe a traction engine, she would produce a much more interesting machine than the one that was in front of you. But it wouldn’t be a deranged fantasy, it would just be a really interesting take on what a traction engine is, and might even be.

“She’s got the most powerful imagination in the land, I think. The two writers I’d compare her with in terms of imaginative fertility would be Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy – she’s sort of in that zone. She seems to have one of those Dickensian imaginations that can bounce between the real world and some sort of extravagant version of the real world, at the same time.”

Manhire says another thing that makes Knox exceptional is her ability to successfully write fiction and non-fiction. “When she gets a topic going and grabs it and runs with it, it’s most wonderful.”

He’s also amazed how she can work on several large projects at the same time, somehow keeping all the disparate ideas and details in her head. “I don’t think I can even have three haiku on the go at once.”

The work Knox has produced since he helped publish her first novel, After Z-Hour, more than 30 years ago, has continued to surprise Manhire. And that’s partly because she’s never been an adherent to any creative writing template or theory. “She’s a rule breaker. But, as I say, Dickens would be guilty of all the same supposed crimes Elizabeth might be accused of.”

That extraordinary creativity Manhire refers to has been there forever, demonstrated in the imaginary games Knox played as a child with her sisters and friends, where elaborate worlds were invented and filled with casts of illusory figures. Knox still plays a game by Skype with younger sister Sara in Australia, their long-running saga surviving after almost half a century.

Even her dreams seem coherent. While most suffer sweaty amalgams of anxiety and absurdity, Knox’s sleep is punctuated with stories, fantastical but almost believable. It’s where the spark for The Vintner’s Luck came from. “I think they are fiction writers’ dreams, I think my mind follows the thread of a story when it’s asleep, so that’s probably why they’re a bit clearer – because that’s the habit my mind has.”

But even if dreams have lent her ideas, it doesn’t make writing a simple process, mere jottings from a reverie. “The difficulty of it is one of its great attractions, because you’re really engaging your whole brain. Novels are incredibly complex, a matrix. And holding all that information in your head is amazing.”

Real life is grounding, though. Knox and Barrowman have a son, Jack, 26, who writes fantasy Knox describes as amazing. There are ageing cats seeking warmth near the heater. There is broccoli and chard and cabbage and broad beans and snow peas and more in the garden. There are friends coming for dinner.

Knox reads, but not as much as she used to or would like, that time now divided with the TV series she loves watching – from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Stranger Things. And she realises it’s the same for many people; there are a multitude of movies and mini-series competing with books for their attention, not to mention computer games and our fixation with phones. Fewer readers means fewer book sales, and it’s harder for new writers to get published, harder to contemplate a writer’s life as Knox did. But she remains mostly positive about the craft and career she’s chosen.

“Reading is one of the great interactive arts – always has been. You make it happen in your head. You read the words and then it all appears in your head. I don’t think books are going to die.”

The books she’s written have been accomplishments Knox only let herself dream of when she began writing, more than 40 years ago. Back then, she noted in her journal, “I want to be a good, or even a great writer.”

She, least of all, can judge if she’s achieved that, but Knox admits her 20-year-old, journal-musing self would be incredibly happy she was still writing, and writing full-time.

“You’ve got to have an aim. And people say, ‘Aim high.’ But they should also say, ‘Aim high, but don’t ever tell anyone.’ I just feel really lucky.”

After so many years and novels, Knox has given up predicting how the critics might greet The Absolute Book, no matter how much she loves her latest work. And despite having been through this so many times, she remains nervous about the reaction, her skin and resilience still able to be pierced.

“I’m terrible – I always listen to criticism and not praise. It’s clearly my upbringing. But the criticism burns into me, and the praise, I go ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ It’s just relief. It’s a really sad state of affairs, but I think it’s quite normal. I would have been very glad if I could have turned myself into a different person to make this an easier process. But whoever turns themselves into a different person?”

No matter what the reaction, Knox won’t resurrect past vows to stop writing. She has, as she admits, an inescapable, inexorable urge to share her world with the whole world.

“You go round going, ‘Look at that, look at that,’ or ‘Listen to this.’ Novels and non-fiction are all made up of observations, so you’re sharing what you see.

“And so you’ve just got to keep writing. And I do it because I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t doing it.”

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.