What I do is build an unreal house and I fill it with real storms

From Writers and Readers Festivals, 4:00 pm on 22 March 2015

Knox ElizabethFormal lectures are often, well, formal. Although the inaugural Margaret Mahy lecture is as tightly-scripted as you would expect from a leading New Zealand author, its extremely personal nature is a surprise.

Elizabeth Knox discusses her mother’s final illness, her relationship with her sister, and a death which tragically occurred to her brother-in-law by a roadside in Rarotonga, and relates them to her own career as a writer of fiction which blends reality and fantasy.

Working on a memoir of her life forced her to confront her own history, and, she says, “all the things I’d only let wander around in my fiction in disguise – the things I wasn’t able to think about while Mum was still alive and very dependent on my company and love.” However, now, “there they were, demanding to be thought about.”

She attributes her interest in fantasy to her childhood relationship with an older – very individual – sibling.

According to Knox, when they were growing up her sister refused to conform to, or acquiesce in what most people agreed on. Although the result was sometimes delightful (as when they shared a joy in bedtime storytelling), the effect on those outside the family circle was not always so. Confronted with a contrary child, adults reacted in different ways.

“The bafflement was fine, and it often went along with kindness, either paternalistic or neutral,” says Knox. “But there was hostility too, and if you were a child who sees over and over how hostile, scared, and indignant some people can be when exposed to a person who doesn’t agree with them, or even see the necessity of agreement, you grow up with a novel view of the worth of agreement. The worth of it and the cost of it.”

Fortunately for her, the young Elizabeth didn’t grow up scarred by this experience. She didn’t become inherently oppositional or sceptical. However, her artistic instinct was “to dodge or sidle by what people think they know.”

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that she would explore the writing of fantasy rather than what she calls the minefield of ideas about seriousness, significance and importance that is literary fiction. “Some of the demands of that genre,” she reflects, “are too like the war of certainties – my sister’s and the world’s” that she saw played out while growing up. She recalls her sister’s blindness to so much of what mattered to others, and others’ stern, self-confident correction of things which her sister couldn’t help or see.

According to Knox, you can’t witness that and not have it shape you: “I’d rather deal with prejudices from some practitioners and readers of genre about what a proper story of a certain kind should look like, and the notion that genre is by default less serious and artful; than stray anywhere near the reptile-haunted pond of what we all know.”

All the same, she doesn’t consider herself an author whose work can only be seen from the perspective of the genre it inhabits. Instead, she uses, the patterns of a genre to build an unreal house and fill it with real storms – conjured from “the real things of life which aren’t reconcilable with living rationally, happily and confidently.”

And thinking of those ‘real things of life’ she speaks of what has happened to her family:

“Like what illness does to us before we die. And how even with all the organisation and energy and goodwill in the world, there is only so much effective help we can offer each other. And, in the end, how careless a world bursting with causes is, with all those devoted to the long cause of care, so that the useful life of a father of four can be snuffed out in an instant, by a spiteful, aggrieved angry young man driving a truck on an island road.”

Listen to Elizabeth Knox deliver the remarkable 2014 Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture:

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