LAWRENCE PATCHETT met Laurence Fearnley at her mother’s Christchurch home shortly before Christmas to discuss her latest novel, Edwin and Matilda, and to find out how the author of six novels hones her writing craft ‘in secret’.

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AT FIRST glance, it looks a difficult love story for any novelist to attempt. Polite, retiring Edwin is 62 and long used to the quiet routines of life as a ‘shapeless orphan’. Withdrawn and intense Matilda, 22, is recovering from the collapse of her marriage, a violent sexual assault, and infection with HIV.

Laurence Fearnley acknowledges that there is something ‘unlikely’ about the love affair that develops between her title characters in Edwin and Matilda. ‘When I was writing it,’ she says, ‘every day, I would ask, ‘Why would she be attracted to him? Why would he be attracted to her?’ And I could never come up with an answer – except that, for Matilda, it’s because Edwin’s nice to her. That was the only answer I could ever come up with – it’s because he’s nice.’

At times melancholic, at others quietly comic, and written throughout in the sensitive, gently probing style for which Fearnley has become known, Edwin and Matilda has been greeted with positive reviews and strong sales (3,000 copies at the time of writing), since its publication last year. For Fearnley, this follows the serialisation of the novel’s predecessor, Butler’s Ringlet, for National Radio and a stint as the Burns Fellow in 2007, as well as a Deutz Medal short-listing for Room in 2001 – yet still she does not consider herself a ‘successful novelist.’

Meeting Lawrence Patchett at her mother’s Christchurch home shortly before Christmas, Fearnley is warm and self-effacing in interview, and open in sharing the private joys and frustrations of her writing practice. Currently editing the final novel in her ‘southern trilogy’, which began with Butler’s Ringlet, and continues with Edwin and Matilda, she explains her passion for the ‘simple and fragile beauty’ of the southern landscapes which generate her stories.

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LUMIČRE: Edwin and Matilda is part two of a ‘southern trilogy’, which you’ve said will be linked not by character or plot but location – the Southland, Central Otago area that all three books take for their setting. What is it about those places that you find so stimulating?

LF: It’s just an area that I’ve always loved, mostly because it’s a very isolated one. All of my memories of that area, as a child, are of travelling through when it was all still gravel roads, and there were these beautiful, dirt-coloured roads that were almost camouflaged in terms of the landscape – just incredibly beautiful.

There’s also a sense that we’re losing a lot of these places as a result of subdivisions or wind farms or just increases in population – a lot of the areas that I remember camping in as a child are now lifestyle blocks and that sort of thing, so to me it seems a very fragile location as well. The parcels of land are getting smaller and smaller and I have a real sadness about that.

On the other hand, I like some of these places because they’re not the tourist spots – they’re not like Milford Sound or Queenstown or Mount Cook. They’re the kind of ‘in between’ places where people travel through but don’t really stop.

But the people have hard lives, I should imagine, and I imagine these people as not being the greatest communicators; there’s that sense where there is lot more going on inside a person than they are able to articulate. I can relate to that, and there’s also that sense of loneliness too, which is something I’m attracted to.

LUMIČRE: Your characters have a very strong connection to the land as well. In some cases those connections are stronger than their connections with people.

LF: Yes, and I think that probably comes from me. I’ve always felt very strongly connected to a place, and I like that idea about the choices that people are forced to make when they have to choose between a person and a place that they love. To me, that’s always been a very hard choice, and I can relate to someone who does choose a place over a person – that doesn’t seem a wrong decision to me.

But there have been times when I’ve hated New Zealand. The first time I went to France, I lived there for about a year, and when I came back to New Zealand I was almost in a state of grief [laughs]. I was remembering these people I’d been living with in Europe, who talked about books and ate dinner at midnight – I thought that was all pretty cool. It was only for a short while, but I really did go through about a year of really hating New Zealand. Then I came right, and now I really appreciate all the things we have here.

LUMIČRE: In terms of the characters that inhabit those landscapes, I think of them almost as emotional recluses – not only geographically isolated but emotionally as well. In Edwin and Matilda, Edwin is a character who has lived as a bachelor all his life, and at one point, even though he’s 62, he’s described as a ‘shapeless orphan,’ and elsewhere as a ‘lonely child.’ Matilda is a pensive, very private person too. What attracts you to those types of people?

LF: A lot of it has to do with my lack of skill in writing novels, in that it’s easier to deal with isolated characters – I can handle two or three characters in isolation a lot more easily than I can handle, say, twenty characters.

I also just feel comfortable around people who are not able to be very outgoing. I’ve got that fear of authority – not because I’m a delinquent or anything . . . a lot of it’s also probably to do with my family. My mother’s always been extremely loving and able to say things like ‘I love you’, but I have no memory of my father ever saying that, even though he loved us and was really proud of us, and we were very, very close. I think that was just the type of people we were – to say those things out loud would have been almost excruciating. It would have seemed false to say ‘I love you’ in that false and American, Walton Family sort of way where they all say ‘Goodnight’ at the end.

So I guess that’s a lot to do with who I am – I’m probably a lot of those characters like Warwick [in Butler’s Ringlet] and Edwin and Matilda. But at the same time there’s a bit of a split personality – a show-offy, putting my foot in my mouth, dorky person as well.

I identify very strongly with Dean [from Butler’s Ringlet] as well, because he’s a really good guy, and he means well, and I feel desperately sorry for him. He’s a very lonely guy, and you just wish that things would go right for him, and yet time and again he’s just too eager. There’s the scene where he goes up to Hanmer to meet this woman that he’s been communicating with, and he arrives twelve hours early, and he builds it up in his mind that he’s going to take her champagne and chocolates for breakfast and it’s all going to be so romantic, but when he arrives in Hanmer the dairy is the only thing open, so he has to buy Mallowpuffs and grape juice or something – that’s the sort of character that I can really identify with as well, because that’s the sort of thing I would do.

In all of these characters there’s a lot of me in them, and it’s this dual personality. On the one hand, being socially scared, and on the other hand, almost overcompensating for it sometimes, by being too friendly, or over-eager.

LUMIČRE: On that communication issue, I’d like to talk about the comedy in your novels. In Edwin and Matilda, that difficulty with communication is pushed to an almost comic extreme, in that Edwin has lost contact with his mother ever since he was a boy, and the way he finds out that she is actually still alive is by reading a Chinese language newspaper, which he can’t even understand. In Butler’s Ringlet, there’s also the comedy that comes out of Dean’s attempts to communicate in the ‘over-eager’ way that you suggested earlier.

LF: Yes, but you have to really work to control that comedy, because otherwise it just becomes farce – especially with Dean. With him, I was cutting it back all the time, because it would be so easy to push it and push it until it becomes farce. I think if you push the humour too much you do end up doing that, and you also lose the edge of sadness about it all.

I like both very subtle humour and the opposite as well – people like Buster Keaton and Jaques Tati; that very clever slapstick kind of stuff. But I love that humour that’s almost painful, like that excruciating moment when Dean is at the funeral, and he’s talking to the woman whose surname is Hole and he says ‘I bet you get called Cake Hole all the time’. I love those things where it’s a bit like watching The Office or something, where you can see it happening before the character sees it happening, and you’re just saying ‘Don’t do it!’ and you know they’re going to do it, and it sets your teeth on edge.

I do like that comedy, but I think it’s got to be done very sympathetically, otherwise you’re just taking the piss out of your characters, and that’s not as nice – you don’t get that nice contrast between pain and humour, which I really like.

“For some reason I wanted to write a book that would make people cry. And it made me cry. When I was writing it, and it’s the same with this book I’ve just finished, I’d come out of my office and my eyes would be just streaming. I’d be perfectly happy but I’d just written this really sad scene . . .”

LUMIČRE: It’s interesting that you talk about this delicacy and balance within the books, because there’s two issues that are quite delicate in this book – the first relates to Matilda’s HIV, and there’s also the issue of the vast difference in age between Edwin and Matilda. Potentially, those two issues could be regarded as ‘taboo’. Were there any pressures associated with writing those particular issues into the story?

LF: On the age difference thing, we went to Franz Joseph once – my husband Alex and I, and my son Harry, who would have been about three and a half then – and we were walking along, and I was thinking about this book, and I was holding Harry’s hand. As we went by, everyone was smiling and saying ‘Hi, how are you,’ and I was thinking about these two characters, Edwin and Matilda, and I imagined them just going for a walk, and I thought – how quickly the mood would change, if I just made those two characters hold hands. People would change from thinking of them as father and daughter in this beautiful, loving relationship, to this sick kind of relationship.

That was the beginning of that relationship – it was just me going for a walk up to Franz Joseph with my son, and everyone being really friendly, and thinking about these two characters holding hands and how everyone’s response to them would instantly change.

LUMIČRE: When those two characters do finally get together, they both talk about it in a very interesting way. Matilda talks about their being fated to find each other, whereas Edwin says something like, ‘I’m not so sure that I believe in fate, but I’m beginning to believe in miracles’. Matilda then goes on to talk about experiencing a sense of gratitude at being given this second chance at love. I guess I’m coming back to this point that a loving connection in your books is very precious and rare, and difficult to achieve.

LF: Yes, and it’s very forgiving as well, and nurturing. Towards the end of the book I think it’s described as being like a resting place – it’s like they find each other and they rest. That’s how that relationship seems to me. It’s not like a torrid sexual relationship. It’s these two people, one who has lost his mother as a child and then been brought up by his father, and the other who has, in a way, lost her mother as a child even though her mother has always been around – both of them find peace and rest. It’s a relationship where they’re not being probed to explain why they’re attracted to each other – they’re just simply being.

That’s what that relationship was all about – they don’t have to second-guess other people. Matilda has probably done a lot of that in her life with her mother – she’s always been trying to protect her mother, and always feeling to blame for her mother’s depression. She’s never understood it, but always felt responsible for it.

Her relationship to Edwin is this moment of being herself; just being allowed to be herself. Here she is with this person who’s, yes, a lot older than herself, but they get on well, and they like each other, and it might not last forever, or it might.

LUMIČRE: It’s interesting what you say about the parents of these two characters, because in all of your books, parents are always difficult: absent, or–

LF: Mad–

LUMIČRE: Yes, mad, or hostile. Can you talk about what interests you in those relationships, or what drives that preoccupation?

LF: I really don’t know. It’s something that my mother has picked up on, and I never noticed it until she started asking me, ‘When are you going to do a decent mother?’ I’ve been a bit oblivious to it. It’s one of those things, you know, where you’ve written six novels, and you can look back and say, ‘Goodness, all my characters are inarticulate, and they’re all isolated, and they all have these weird relationships,’ but as you’re writing them, you’re not aware of that.

Even in the book that’s set in the Antarctic, Degrees of Separation, there’s the guy who’s the scientist who has chosen his research over his children. What’s his name?

LUMIČRE: William–

LF: William. Yeah, I really don’t know why that is, except it’s getting back to that thing where I don’t feel of capable of writing a novel that’s got lots of characters and lots of interactions, because once you bring in families you bring in partners and children and it all gets too big, and I can’t handle it.

In some ways, it’s like me. In terms of friendships, I like to focus on having a small number of friends and seeing them one or two at a time and really focusing my attention on them. In my books, I like to have one or two characters and just immerse myself in their lives, so that it’s almost like I’m turning a screw on their lives very tightly, and trying to get to the bottom of them. If I have too many characters it all becomes too wishy-washy and I feel distracted.

It’s the same with these simple environments – I like that simple type of beauty. You know, we’re up here in Mount Pleasant looking across at the line of hills, and to me that’s a really beautiful, peaceful hill-line, and I could look at those clouds forever. To set something in a city just seems pointless, because there’s too much going on, and you can’t fathom it; you can’t immerse yourself in it, because there’s too many distractions.

I like the lack of distraction that comes with characters who don’t have big or happy families . . . the character of Matilda’s mother comes from the people I used to meet when I was a curator. I would go from house to house of these extremely wealthy people, and I would meet the women, and to me they were just like these monsters. It was really sad because they were really wealthy, privileged people with a real sense of entitlement, but you got the sense that their husbands were powerful men, and probably absent a lot of time, doing business and all that stuff, and it seemed the only way these women could exert power was by being short-tempered with the people who were employed to mow the lawns or whatever.

That’s where the character of Matilda’s mother comes from; she was this amalgamation of all those people I met as a curator. I think it was the contrast between them and the people who were actually creating the art, who were all living on the bones of their arse. I worked at the Dowse art museum, and the artists were all craftspeople – jewellers and ceramicists and glassmakers – and they were all doing something they felt passionate about, and yet they were getting paid peanuts.

It’s really because of them that I became a writer – because I saw these people doing something they really wanted to do, something they just had to do, and yet they weren’t getting money or exhibitions. What they were getting back was essentially nothing, but they had a sense of worth and satisfaction about their work. I contrasted that with the people who were buying their work – and a lot of them were wonderful people, not all of them were hideous, but there was this small circle of wealthy people who were almost immune to what they were buying. It was almost like this material accumulation – I felt quite sickened by it. Not that I’m any better than them or anything, it was just a real gut reaction. I just felt the world was going the wrong way, and I feel it again when I see all these big houses around the back of Wanaka or Queenstown – it’s the same kind of thing.

LUMIČRE: Coming back to Edwin and Matilda, when we were talking via email earlier, you described the book, for all its unusualness and strangeness, as a very ‘simple, and warm love story.’

LF: For some reason I wanted to write a book that would make people cry. And it made me cry. When I was writing it, and it’s the same with this book I’ve just finished, I’d come out of my office and my eyes would be just streaming. I’d be perfectly happy but I’d just written this really sad scene . . .

The original ending that I had in my head was very different from the ending that I finally ended up writing in the book. I wanted [Edwin] to finally meet his mother, and to go in, and for her to say, ‘Oh, it’s nice to see you again,’ and then about five minutes into the conversation, I wanted her to say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice of you to come and visit, but you’ll have to go in a minute, because I’m expecting my son.’

I thought that would be just heart-stopping, but I couldn’t get to that ending without somehow prolonging the length of time it would take to get [Edwin] into the room with his mother. How would I get him into the room without him being warned first by the Beth character? Like, why would she not say, ‘Look, your mother is completely senile.’ I thought that ending would be so good, but I just couldn’t write it; I just didn’t have the skill to write it.

Going back to the curating thing, curating had a huge influence on me. When I was curating I was always thinking, why am I curating and not doing? I really loved curating, and then I changed jobs to one that I didn’t like quite so much, and that was one of the things that made it easier to become a writer – moving out from a job that I didn’t like as much.

My first novel was rejected . . . I had a very rocky start. I think it’s quite good, in retrospect, to have a rocky start. It makes you appreciate it more when things go smoothly, when you don’t feel entitled to anything. Every time a book gets accepted by my publisher I still breathe a huge sigh of relief. I never expect anything to be accepted.

“I think it’s quite good, in retrospect, to have a rocky start. It makes you appreciate it more when things go smoothly, when you don’t feel entitled to anything. Every time a book gets accepted by my publisher I still breathe a huge sigh of relief. I never expect anything to be accepted.”

LUMIČRE: You’ve talked quite a lot about this idea of getting better as a writer over time, and about not having the skill at a particular time to write a certain scene –

LF: Yeah, and I still never measure up to the writers I admire. The more I read my work, which I don’t do very often, apart from when I’m editing and re-writing . . . I get frustrated at little things like my sentence structure. There are people who can find the exact word, and I’m not saying it has to be a big word or a fancy word, but I find it really hard to do that. There’re some writers who can do it, and you can just sense that they’ve nailed it, but I just always miss – I never quite nail it. And it could be that I’m looking for the word ‘inadequate’ and I use ‘not satisfied’ or something like that . . . it’s something really small, and it’s not quite right, and I know it’s not quite right, and I just can’t think of the word that I want. I find that so irritating. I think if I was a more skilful writer these books would be just that much better.

I guess you feel a bit more pressure too, as you get on a bit. With six novels published, you have this body of reviews that you’ve read about your work. I don’t get too many bad reviews to tell the truth, but the ones that don’t like my work, it’s usually because there’s not enough plot, and I know there’s not much plot in my work, but I don’t really like plot-driven novels, which is probably the reason why.

In the back of my mind now there’s this niggle that marketing might want more of a plot-driven novel, and then you get tangled up because if you start trying to second-guess what somebody wants you’re really screwed, so you’ve got to just push that to the back of your mind. You don’t want to spend nine months or a year or two years, or however long it takes, writing a book for someone else. You want to write it for yourself. It’s just not worth it – why do that?

LUMIČRE: There’s been a debate, or at least a conversation going on in New Zealand literary circles in recent years about the internationalisation of New Zealand fiction. It seems to me that your books are going a different way, in that you choose these settings that are quite markedly different, and there’s always that very strong sense of place, which has been recognised as one of the strengths of your work. Do you have an opinion on that debate, or any interest in it?

LF: It’s funny because I’m associated now with this Southland, Central Otago, rural location, and yet two of my novels were set in France. I was living in France at that time of course, so I had a connection to that place as well. But I guess, the thing with me is that I’ve never seen myself as a ‘successful’ novelist, so I’ve never tried to get an agent, so my books have never been published overseas.

I really don’t want to deal with agents – I’ve got this fear they might phone me up, or email me, or something. If I could just post a book off, that would be different, but the idea of someone else intruding – that’s too much. So, what I’m saying is that because I haven’t ever had that potential overseas market, I’ve never felt that I’d better set a book in America or England or wherever.

And the fact is that I feel like there’s this wealth of stuff in this one area – it’s an area I really love, and it feeds me, and it intrigues me. I’m so curious about the people that live there, and the landscape’s so beautiful – it’s got everything I want, you know?

I also think that the more you know a place, the more intriguing it is, and that’s what happened with these places around Alexandra or Mossburn. I think an artist like Graeme Sydney, who spends a lot of time painting those Central Otago landscapes, gets a real sense of strength and meaning from sitting there and watching the landscape, and watching how it changes, and then interpreting it. But it’s not what you would see if you looked out of the window, it’s a very designed reality, and I think that’s similar to how I see it.

So in terms of internationalism, I think you’ve got to write what you’re interested in, and there would be no point in me trying to write a book that’s set in New York, because I’m just not interested in New York. I’m quite determined but I’m not particularly ambitious – I really love writing, and I’m really grateful that Penguin publishes me. But I don’t care that I’m not ever going to make it in the world scene. It’s kind of not important . . . At the time that my first books came out, I would have loved more publicity and all that sort of stuff, but in retrospect, I think the lessons are far more valuable, the way it’s gone. I feel very, very lucky that I’ve been able to keep writing, to do something that I love, and to make mistakes – not to write perfect novels, but to know that I can work on them. I’m very grateful for that.

LUMIČRE: Finally, can you give us an idea of what to expect from this third book in the trilogy?

LF: It’s set in Invercargill, and the main character is a caregiver. She’s about forty, and she’s had three children . . . I see it as a political novel, because this is a woman who works really hard, she’s very decent and very stoic, and she’s never had any time to reflect or think. I’m not saying she’s stupid, but her life is about working and earning money and looking after her children, and being decent.

Then she gets this client, who has a collection of guitars, and she’s reminded of how when she was a child, she always had a good voice when she was singing at church, but she was never really able to have the luxury of pursuing it, because she’s always had to work, and she had her own children when she was seventeen years old.

He plays the guitar and she sings, and it’s one of these very brief moments of joy, when she’s remembering how she sang. She’s got this little glimmer, and then he kills himself, and it’s all gone.


LF: Yeah, it is grim, but it’s more than just a description of a life. To me it’s a fast-paced book. She’s got this son who is a teenager who is borderline delinquent, and there’s all these horrible, humiliating things that happen.

We were talking about humour, and how I like it to be a bit painful – this son enters one of those competitions where you have to hold your hand on a car, and the last person to have their hand on the car after two days or three days or whatever, wins. He doesn’t win the car, but he injures himself and he gets given a 1984 Corolla or something.

Her daughter is quite bright – not an angelic bright, like something from Once Were Warriors, but she’s bright enough that she could potentially go on to university. That’s how I, as a middle-class woman, would think of this girl’s situation, but with this woman it never really enters her consciousness, because she’s thinking: this girl’s reaching sixteen, and soon she’ll be out working and building up a career.

So it’s a novel about all of that, and about how this woman had this little glimmer of a life that could be something different. The real tragedy is that she doesn’t recognise it. It’s not like she sees it and then it’s taken away. She doesn’t recognise it in the first place because it’s not part of her consciousness to see something so beautiful and hopeful. She’s too busy; she doesn’t have time for that – you know, she’s got to feed the kids, and go to the shops, and do all of that. That’s the real tragedy.

Edwin and Matilda is available in Penguin. RRP: $28.00.