Working with Words: Emily Perkins

New Zealand writer Emily Perkins has received international acclaim for her fiction. Her last book, Novel About My Wife, won the Believer Book Award (US) and the Montana Award, New Zealand’s top literary prize; it also attracted rave reviews in the UK and Australia. Her latest novel, The Forrests, is receiving similar acclaim – and she’s coming to the Melbourne Writers' Festival to talk about it. We talked to Emily for our Working with Words series.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Aside from a piece on school assignment for the Independent Herald, Johnsonville, Wellington, NZ, published round about 200 BC, it was a 1993 short story ‘Not Her Real Name’, in Sport. (Sport is one of our best literary journals. The name displays a particularly New Zealand sense of humour.)

What’s the best part of your job?

There are so many things to choose from. The pleasure of thinking about it, the surprise of the startling word or combination or thing you didn’t expect to write, seeing a piece of work find a shape, hearing from readers who have connected with a book … maybe these all come down to a feeling of discovery.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Aha, there are so many things to choose from. But I don’t think writers should moan in public. Behind closed doors, however…

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

It’s hard to go past that first publication, or the first book, the first time someone else says, effectively, ‘I get this and I think other people will too’. I can remember sitting on the tube in London after the editor at Picador had phoned with an offer to publish my stories … we were stuck in between stations for ages (it was the Northern Line) and all I could hear was this oceanic roaring in my ears.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

‘Acquire no dependents.’ Whether it’s best or worst depends on the day.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself, or your work?

This is shameless skiting, but I was delighted by a piece on The Forrests that Michelle de Kretser wrote for the Monthly. It is overwhelming and an unexpected gift to have your work considered so thoughtfully by a writer you admire. One thing that surprised me in her piece was the way she brought in the idea of the internet as a possible influence on the structure – that was something I hadn’t thought of.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Feeling bitter. Robbing banks. (Actually I teach, but the bitter bank robber in me is busting to get out.)

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

That’s what I teach, so my view may be very slightly biased … yes it can be taught and studied – like any other art form or discipline. This doesn’t mean there are any rules, or at least none that can’t be pleasurably broken. But whether a writing student will go on to become a writer is dependent on a lot of variables, most of them personal.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Stay in love with reading. My advice to myself when I’m writing is usually ‘loosen up’. Or ‘loosen the fuck up’ to use the technical phrase.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Nearly always in a physical bookshop, but online if I can’t ask the local bookseller to order it in easily. We’re lucky in NZ to have some great independent bookshops that look to be in good heart, though god knows it can’t be easy. I’d hate to have to give up the pleasure of in-real-life browsing.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

The books I love most don’t always include characters who would make good dinner company. Um, stumped by this one. Can I just go with a fun bunch of writers?

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There are countless books that are significant in different ways. If I had to choose one, maybe The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, the first ‘chapter book’ I read to myself. I read it recently to my children and we were all in tears by page 2 – thrilling to feel the fresh but familiar power of a story across the decades. Or the Greek myths retold by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen, and illustrated by Charles Keeping, in The God Beneath the Sea – brilliantly weird and intense. Those books were a crucial part of my first falling in love with reading. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is a touchstone.

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