Machines for Pleasure: An Interview with Elizabeth Knox
Elizabeth Knox has had a career unlike any other New Zealand writer. She talks with Pip Adam about writing monsters, angels and faeries, navigating genre and expanding the definition of New Zealand literature.
When I listen back to our conversation, I can hear Elizabeth Knox’s cat, Ida, purring. Ida is comfy and close as Knox mentions an essay by Ursula Le Guin about animals in literature as a way for us to encounter the ‘other’ as full beings – fully alive, as full of feelings as we are. “The world’s full of creatures that are full of love,” she says and we both shudder because coming from Knox this is not some soft platitude, it’s a mind-blowing proposition.
For me, this is Knox’s super-power, the ability to write imaginary places in ways that force us to reimagine how we experience our ‘real’ world. This super-power is in full effect in hew new novel, The Absolute Book. Set in places both real and imagined – in London, Norfolk and the Wye Valley; in Auckland; in the Island of Apples and Summer Road of the Sidhe; at Hell’s Gate; in the Tacit with its tombs; and in the hospitals and train stations of Purgatory – The Absolute Book ultimately prompts us to feel more strongly in and for the world we read it from.
The Absolute Book is one of two books Knox has coming out this September. Her 1999 novel The Vintner’s Luck will also be re-released as a VUP Classic. The Vintner’s Luck is famously a tale of love, wine and angels – published at a time when, perhaps, New Zealand literature was recognisable by its steely realism. Her new book features sidhe – Gaelic supernaturals comparable to faeries or elves – and its fair share of demons. So, we talk about the mythical others of literature – faeries, vampires, aliens. “I love them monsters,” Knox says.
I wasn’t writing a book to be published ... I was writing my way into happiness.
When I ask her how the two books sit together in her mind, she says, “I think The Vintner’s Luck is a machine for pleasure and I think The Absolute Book is too. Both books were written out of a sense of freedom and joy. The Vintner’s Luck because I wasn’t writing a book to be published, and The Absolute Book because I was writing my way into happiness.”
Knox is the author of 13 novels, three novellas and a collection of essays. Her work feels singular in New Zealand literature because of its concern with world-building, and characters who are not always human. Elements perhaps more familiar to genres like fantasy, horror or science fiction. As readers and critics, we talk about books like this in various ways, but Knox explains she’s trying to write “literature in genre”. She says, “I’ve always been trying to write literature – something that lasts. It was my aim from the beginning and it’s horribly ambitious, and people go, ‘Oh. Did she just say that?’ Writing is a private thing and I’m not making any claim that I’ve succeeded, but this was my aim, and I do at least have one book that people are still reading 20 years later, and I’m pretty pleased about that.”
I decided that I could just widen the brief of what a New Zealand writer might be.
Knox says she’s always had a sense that the definition of ‘New Zealand literature’ could be expanded. She began The Vintner’s Luck not with any drive to write a “non-New Zealand book” but because she had a dream she wanted to get down. “I was working part-time and mothering,” she says, “and I had very little time for writing. There’s only so much time you can give up and still write a novel, because novels take a lot of time and downtime, because of the thinking. So, I thought, okay, I’ll just entertain myself. The dream was very vivid, and I wanted to know what would happen in the story the dream was telling me. So, I wrote out to the end of the dream and then I sat and looked at it.” Knox says when she got to the part of the story where Xas tells Sobran he’s a fallen angel, something clicked, and she had a strong feeling that she was plugging into her deepest storytelling instincts.
Over the years, Knox has written novels that include vampires, dreamhunters, incubi, an invisible monster and more than one film star. Her books have been set in various imaginings – fictional and non-fictional – of New Zealand but also in fictional South American countries, 1920s Los Angeles and a remote Scottish island. “I don’t want to say I’d given up on being a New Zealand writer, I never really gave up. I gave up trying and decided that I could just widen the brief of what a New Zealand writer might be.”
The Absolute Book is a masterclass in world-building. The worlds it inhabits have their own physics and include mythical characters with deep histories, sociology and psychologies. After the violent death of her sister, protagonist Taryn Cornick throws herself into her work – writing a book about the things that threaten libraries. A policeman, Jacob Berger, has questions about a cold case. There are threatening phone calls, an ancient scroll box and a question about a fire at Taryn’s grandparents’ house. A shadowy young man named Shift appears, bringing his shadows with him. Taryn, Jacob and Shift are driven towards a reckoning felt in more than one world. Of the novel’s setting, Knox says. “You could say there’s more New Zealand sometimes and less New Zealand other times, and sometimes there’s no New Zealand at all. And you can also say this person is writing genre or writing using genre. You can do all those sums, but in the end I’m just doing what I’m doing.”
I felt that [Margaret Mahy] was building a room in New Zealand literature where I wanted to go, be, hang out, get comfortable.
Knox points to Anna Smaill, Charlotte Randall and Damien Wilkins as examples of New Zealand writers whose work, like her own, asserts, “The world is mine, human activity is mine. This story I’m telling suits being told in this location.” She also points to Margaret Mahy as an example of a New Zealand author who widened the brief. “It was always infinitely cheering that Margaret was there before me,” Knox says. In her essay ‘Margaret Mahy, Hero’, Knox writes, “I felt that she was building a room in New Zealand literature where I wanted to go, be, hang out, get comfortable.”
“Being a New Zealander isn’t a condition,” Knox jokes. “It certainly doesn’t accrue great benefits, to be an artist, so you shouldn’t have to keep reporting to your caseworker.”
I write what’s in me and the genre gets chosen by that.
Knox explains that, for her, the genre and literary elements of a book can’t be tacked on or stripped out. “They’re in whatever problem you’re solving when you set out to write the book. They’re in your engagement, they’re actually in you.” She explains that an interest in a particular genre often comes from a mood or something that is happening in her life at the time. For instance, Knox says of her 2013 novel Wake, which includes elements of horror, “It suited that time because it was trying to deal with our experience of helplessness and of being responsible for people when everything tells us we are going to fail.” She explains, “I write what’s in me and the genre gets chosen by that.”
More recently, Knox started The Absolute Book because she wanted to have some fun. “I was so tired and so depressed,” she says. “But of course, the fun turns into a cure – a fun cure – and I realised what I was trying to do was write a book to make people happy. It’s a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy.” As is common with wish-fulfilment stories, The Absolute Book doesn’t just give the characters what they already know they want but shows them what they want. In doing so, it raises interesting questions about self-determination and care. Taryn thinks she can leave the past behind her – her sister’s death and her own ill-conceived revenge. Her book is a success, but some of the attention it brings is exactly what she doesn’t want.
Some of the compelling complexity of the novel comes from the layering of genre, which Knox uses to give the book its structure. “This is an arcane thriller,” Knox says. “Which is a sub-genre of detective and fantasy, where you have somebody looking for a magical object, an arcane or hidden, strange, potent thing.”
Another way that Knox describes the book is as “a recovery narrative”. “Which of course is my purpose in writing it. The main character, Taryn, is a person who has given up three-quarters of herself. She’s got the life she has because she’s made a mess of things, and because she’s been so hurt. And then she just gets better throughout the book. Even though terrible stuff happens to her, and all her chickens come home to roost – that’s all part of it – the recovery is meant to be the pleasing through-line. So, it’s hard to get to the happy, but that means the happiness has gravity and necessity. You can see every step of how you got there. It’s hard won.”
Taryn is human and we meet her in the grit of our world. But as the book goes on, she is more and more in the company and the world of the sidhe. Knox has had a lot of Irish and Norse mythology in her head “forever”, and this was part of the appeal of writing The Absolute Book. What this 360-degree understanding of the folklore means is that the book is incredibly immersive and affecting – the world is so expertly created and the characters so completely drawn. There is also an absolutely tantalising play between our world and the world of the sidhe.
When talking about how she wrote so successfully into this lore, Knox says, “If you imagine that human beings have encountered these beings on and off over centuries and the human apprehension of them – human stories about them – is created through the humans making sense of something that they’re observing only in part. The humans are seeing [only] what they’re allowed to see, because anyone who gets in too deep ends up staying in fairyland. So, you have to imagine that the human stories are a kind of a guideline of various facts about faeries, but these facts are open for interpretation.”
Knox wanted, she says, to show people what the myth could mean as well as to “spin off” from it and tell her own story using the folklore. As an example, she points to a scene in The Absolute Book where Taryn tries to make sense of the changeling story by retelling it as a realist story. A healthy baby has a fever and disappears, apparently swapped for a less responsive changeling. Couldn’t this be meningitis? Taryn suggests. This is an interesting idea but what sets Knox apart as a master is that Taryn tells this story already knowing that faeries exist. “This is one of the switchbacks the book pulls,” Knox says, “because it’s trying to say, what could this myth mean?”
I can’t help myself, and ask her what the difference is between angels and faeries. “The way I’ve written angels,” she says, “it’s like looking at an army, a battalion, they’re a group of individuals in a professional assembly, whereas faeries are a society. Faeries aren’t indestructible like angels, they’re perishable. Although angels are bodily material beings, faeries live in a much more material world, they are much more at one with their environment. I don’t mean that they waft around with flowers in their hair. Faeries, by habit, live in the world as if they’re part of it. They spend a lot of time walking in order to tend their food forests, even though they have other technologies that make walking unnecessary. Faeries have very strong feelings, but their society is founded on hard-heartedness. They have to be hard-hearted because they can’t see another way. They’re tragic.” To this, I add, they live in the most amazing world. This is another joy of The Absolute Book, it takes you to the most amazing place and you get to experience it in all its beauty and complication. “I wanted the reader to say, ‘I want to go there now!’” says Knox.
I love the world. And I love people – but shit, we do some appalling and stupid things.
The world of the sidhe is unbelievably pleasurable to read, but there are some terrible things going on to keep the world the way it is. I raise the idea of utopia, and Knox suggests the binaries of utopia and dystopia are a “pollution of genre”. Instead, Knox suggests that she writes “dystopian utopias”, which leads us back to our world. “I love the world,” Knox says, “And I love people – but shit, we do some appalling and stupid things. Notice the ‘we’,” she says. “The ‘we’ is important.” She and I agree that current world events have upped the ante on dystopic fiction, where usually there is one systematic problem. “But there’re so many good things about people and how they conduct their lives,” Knox says. The day before our conversation, she saw Damon Gameau’s documentary film 2040, which has been described as an exercise in “fact-based dreaming”, and it seems so well paired with The Absolute Book and indeed all of Knox’s work. “I don’t think I’ve written a single work of fiction that deprives the reader of hope.”
The Absolute Book is full of big ideas like hope and loss; it spans massive landscapes and holds millennia of myth. I ask Knox how she manages to keep an epic novel so gripping. “It’s about pace, not length,” she says. “It’s an epic fantasy, but an intimate epic. It’s a genre I’m trying to invent,” she laughs. “I’m sure there are other examples of this.” She stops. “Laini Taylor is a perfect example of the intimate epic.” Elizabeth Knox is an amazing person to go to for book recommendations – during the interview, along with Taylor’s work, she talks about YA authors Holly Black and Jonathan Stroud. “I also love really wonderful realist fiction,” she says and lists Deborah Levy and Sally Rooney’s latest books. She’s enjoyed Anna Burns’ Milkman and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall.
The Absolute Book has changed the way I look at almost everything. There’s a curiosity it leaves which seems to foster hope.
There are other New Zealand writers producing incredible works of non-realism and genre literature, but what sets Knox apart is that she has been doing it again and again – and always moving through genres. I ask why she thinks more writers don’t do what she does, given how exciting the possibilities of genre are. “I’ve been thinking about why people don’t do it and I don't think that it’s a market-led thing. I think it’s because it’s incredibly, fiendishly difficult – that’s partly why I do it. I now know what I can do, but it always still feels like trying. It’s still difficult for me to make it work. But that’s why I like doing it and that’s why I like reading it, because when people pull it off it’s like watching a fabulous live performance where the ballet dancer attempts a huge number of pikes in a row. It’s exciting.”
Ida has drunk some of the water from my mug. This is my fault, not Elizabeth’s – I am intrigued by the cat, and as she inches closer and closer to my mug I just have to see if she’ll drink out of it. The cat is something of a mystery to me. I have a dog and Ida seems so clever in comparison, so aware of being observed and so observing. Like a faerie, maybe. I’m not sure I would have recognised Ida the way I do without reading The Absolute Book. It has changed the way I look at almost everything. There’s a curiosity it leaves which seems to foster hope. It’s a read not to be missed. It made me happy, just as Elizabeth intended.
The Absolute Book
Victoria University Press
Feature image: Elizabeth Knox, photograph by Ebony Lamb