Flying Dreams: A Conversation with Emma Neale

Posted on

Emma Neale published her first novel Night Swimming in 1998, quickly followed by Sleeve Notes, a collection of poetry. Since then she’s published five novels – Little Moon, Double Take, Relative Strangers, Fosterling, and Billy Bird – and four collections of poetry. She works as a writer, editor, creative writing tutor, and is also the mother of two sons.

I first met Emma before an event at WORD Christchurch, and her humour, fierce intellect, and generosity quickly became clear. In light of the publication of her novel Billy Bird and the cuts at Otago University (where she works), I sat down with Emma to talk about writing, families, the zombification of culture, and why the humanities are important for a robust society. 

Photos of Emma by Graham Warman

Sarah Jane Barnett: First, a belated congratulations for the long listing your poetry collection Tender Machines at the 2016 Ockham Awards. It’s a beautiful collection. You’ve also recently launched a new novel Billy Bird, which – among many things – is about a family, a tragic event, and a young boy who takes on the persona of a bird. One of the reasons that I find your work so exciting is the way you write honestly and unabashedly about families. It took me a long time to feel comfortable writing about being a parent, possibly because the experience is as tough and brutal as it is joyous. It felt exposing, but in the end unavoidable. How, emotionally, did it feel to write Billy Bird?

Emma Neale: I understand the reluctance to write about parenthood, actually: a number of hesitations can turn people away from it as a subject. I’ve talked to writers who want their creative life to be a complete break from parenthood, as they find its contradictions, frustrations and sheer exhaustion too debilitating to revisit on the page; to writers who go in fear of the personal, full stop; or who agonise over what their own children will think of the work when they’re adults; or who fear that their work will be dismissed as ‘only’ domestic.

For me, the experience of parenthood has at times been so dividing, so challenging and shaking – potentially major early health issues for our children as babies; postnatal depression; pulling through that and wanting to be as present for the children as possible, but also to keep up some form of intellectual and creative life, and make a financial contribution (however small) to the family; that I found that even when I had carved out solitude for writing, there was so much teeming around in my head about family dynamics, and childhood development, that frequently these subjects jostled out others.

On the other hand, I’ve always been interested in how identity is shaped by our early family environments – and my own role as a mother was inevitably going to be ‘field research’! I also think, as time has gone on (one son is 14, one is nearly 7), I’ve been more able to see that each phase in their lives truly is a phase. Moments of crisis don’t have to signal permanent disaster. Some of the vulnerabilities and fears of early motherhood have just naturally dissipated as I’ve watched the children grow into confident, humorous, thoughtful, warm, wacky, creative adventurers.

I've always been interested in how identity is shaped by our early family environments - and my own role as a mother was inevitably going to be ‘field research.’

SJB: Was that experience part of the inspiration for Billy Bird?

EN: The inspiration partly came from developing the ability to see the potential for renewal and humour in some of the chaos, mischief and distraction of children. I’d been fascinated for a long time about the way some children develop obsessions with particular animals, or super heroes or other imaginary characters – the gifts and powers they express and try to attain through that, the aspirations these express, the aspects of personality such games externalise, I suppose. I began to wonder whether that phase could ever become problematic for an otherwise healthy child, rather than a joyous and natural experiment. I saw that it would have to be a problem in this novel – that it would be the apparent axle that the family’s stuck wheel spun around. So given imaginary play is usually a positive sign in children, the fictional conundrum I had to set out to solve was why does Billy’s bird persona start to distress his parents and cause problems at his school?

I’ve been asked once or twice, what was the inspiration for Billy’s ‘alter ego’ as a bird in particular? And I don’t think my answer has been full enough either time. One reason is that there are a number of local and international myths about human to bird transformation, or fusion, that were at the back of my mind; but also, if a New Zealand child is going to have a real, ongoing, spontaneous living response to the animal world it seemed more realistic that it will be to birdlife. Another reason is that birds are such a clear symbol of physical freedoms we leaden-limbed humans don’t have.

The longer I think about it, the more I think it probably stems from some of my own early childhood obsessions and formative experiences: a memory of being utterly convinced that I flew one day, up from the lawn in suburban Christchurch; intensely vivid flying dreams; a religious crisis when I was about five, and God didn’t respond when I prayed and asked if I could please hold a sparrow (so I stopped believing in a benevolent, sentient presence out there); a phase when I kept trying to rescue fallen nestlings and raise them at home. I didn’t remember any of this when I started writing the book, but it was as if Billy himself had always been there somehow. The memories have only come back when I’ve been asked about the origins of the novel.

To go back to your earlier question, how did it feel to write the book? There were times of despair – it had to go through a number of drafts – and sometimes the struggle to get a good clean run of time at a book this size feels overwhelming. But I often found that Billy’s madcap character, his verbal and physical energy, lifted me, and that reminding myself that the artistic process is about playfulness and experimentation as much as it is about critical thought, was liberating. Allowing fun on the page felt like a breakthrough. 

Allowing fun on the page felt like a breakthrough.

SJB: Ah – having fun on the page! I’ve just started to write my third collection of poetry, and it’s much harder than the other two. What’s keeping me going is a promise to myself to have fun and experiment, and to keep my internal critic’s voice to a minimum. Throughout the years you’ve alternated between writing fiction and poetry; was that an act of fun and experimentation – a desire to see what language can do? For you, do they have different purposes?

EN: The see-saw between fiction and poetry was initially less about experimentation and play, and more about using slightly different tools to tackle different problems. Poetry has tended to be both a way of thinking about language and also a way of processing events, shifting feelings, capturing self-contained moments. So it can be both recording a small yet significant volta in psychological development or an intimate relationship, and also be reacting to the subtext of a throwaway phrase, a dismissive comment, or the way ordinary, unthinking habits of language can contain all kinds of hidden assumptions and ironies, dark or light. The focus is usually on the sensuous aspects of language: cadence, prosody, perhaps the tension of unresolved syntax and how that coils along the page and travels down to some point of release; or on dropping images like spots of colour that change the fabric or mood of the poem. The focus is on the micro detail; on little jolts of sound, image and sense. I suppose one analogy might be that it’s like catching sight of some strange fleet, bright scene from a speeding vehicle.

With fiction, the simplest way of describing the difference is that, for me, it’s been triggered not about what is, or what was, but what if? And the attention is less on the music and latent meanings of words, but more on the dynamics between people. An analogy here would be sitting by a fire with a bottle of wine and a companion who opens up and tells you the secret thing you need to know about them to truly understand why they’re heading out of town tomorrow.


SJB: From the way you describe the two, I am guessing that your writing process differs between poetry and fiction. How do they support each other?

EN: The process differs in ways you’d probably also guess. A poem can be triggered by something like the sonic hook of a particular phrase, or a single image; and it’s so much easier to get a draft down of a poem, and even though I do a lot of revision of poetry and prose, it’s quicker to get something I’m satisfied with when writing a poem. That might even be why I’ve carried on trying both; I need the quick fix of having a poem finished to energise me to get back to the fiction. I tend to get much more feedback on the fiction during the drafting process than I do on poetry. Often a poem isn’t seen by anyone else until it’s in print; but with the novels, it’s much harder for me to independently see where things have turned patchy or fallen out of focus or indulge in excess detail.

As for the purpose of each: the crossover between what they both offer is enormous, but to be simplistic, I think poetry gets us to savour and analyse language as raw material, whereas fiction helps us to understand social relationships and pressures, and the private, interior lives of individuals. I think both, ultimately though, have the goal of broadening our capacity for empathy: they share an osmotic membrane, in that sense!

SJB: I wanted to ask about teaching at Otago. I also teach and find it an essential part of my writing life. I’m heartened by my students’ enthusiasm for reading and writing literature, and also by how writing changes their lives. Recently there have been funding cuts to the humanities at Otago (the university’s management have been accused of cutting staff in favour of campus beautification projects), and it made me think about what society values. Without putting yourself in a difficult position, could you talk about the role of teaching in your writing life (or your life in general)? What are the challenges and pleasures? Do the cuts make you angry?

EN: Teaching, like writing itself, contains everything. It is everything that people are! There is fear and anxiety and stress and despair and intense irritation and boredom and swooning and hilarity and panic and nostalgia and inspiration and euphoria and stimulation and enlightenment and amazement and resolve never to do it again and lamentations that the semester is nearly done and the cycle repeats each time I teach. I start each semester in trepidation, and then end each one being totally uplifted by how much confidence the students have developed, how inventive and responsive they’ve been, and how they’ve stretched me and themselves. 

During the poetry workshops, we have never only discussed things like the merits of rhyme, rhythm, image, metaphor, lineation: we’ve been discussing everything from the rights of sex workers to violence against transgender people; from Black Lives Matter to homophobia; from what it’s like to have been raised by a narcissistic parent to how to write sensitively about mental health issues, or how to write about spiritual matters effectively, to what we mean by ‘a political poem’. Every year there are students who have their prejudices and assumptions challenged by others in the class, and I’ve grown to realise that this is partly why we so badly need formal study of the humanities: to provoke and promote energised debate and co-education. That is, the students and I educate each other; they educate one another: minds are altered!


SJB: I also have the experience of my students teaching me. The current cuts at Otago and elsewhere feel infuriatingly short-sighted; not all learning has to be vocational or have an immediate economic payoff! I’m disturbed by a society that doesn’t value connection or beauty or imagination, which all encourage empathy.

EN: The cuts to the humanities division – the extent of which, as I write this, still haven’t been precisely revealed – do make me angry. And sorrowful. And also frightened. They make me very sad for the dedicated full-time staff who have given their careers to Otago, and who also make a much wider contribution to the arts and volunteer community. The ripple effects of this kind of thing are massive: the city will lose families who have to move for work; their contribution to the Dunedin community will vanish – so we are talking about wider cultural impact, not just spreadsheet numbers. They make me concerned about what sort of future we’re preparing for teenagers and primary school children.

There would have been ways of preventing this if the university had actively sought ways to increase humanities students; if they had not allowed a kind of silo approach to degrees, which puts up barriers between commerce, medicine and the arts. The silo approach is not necessary. Many other overseas universities make some liberal arts study compulsory, even for qualifications in areas like engineering, because the humanities teach students not to swallow information undigested. They teach students not to forget that what seems like unshakable truth might be a mass delusion; they teach us how to be adaptable, to question, and to visualise change. 

I wish Government had the foresight to see what it takes to create cosmopolitan, widely-informed, flexible, inventive, adaptable, questioning, and sceptical citizens. People’s undergraduate years should be a time of intellectual experimentation. Students should be encouraged – through public discourse and funding models – to try out courses that allow them to debate ethics, values, to learn languages, extend their individual and artistic expression, so they gain a richer appreciation of other cultures and our own and can participate as more fully-rounded, critical and joyous members of society.

I keep thinking, drain away the arts and what will we have left? Mindless consumers who can’t criticise authority cogently and can’t imagine and ‘instal’ an alternative future? Silent radios, blank pages, empty stages, blank televisions, blank walls, empty theatres, dead movie screens – and a populace that can’t understand their own histories, their own minds and hearts, nor the interior worlds of other people. I seriously think that depleting the opportunities for students to have places where they discuss and are exposed to urgent social concerns and ideas about full human rights, and are challenged to express their views in language in ways both accurate and moving, is dangerous. It leads to closed-off, intolerant (xenophobic and fundamentalist) mind sets. It heralds the zombification of culture. These kinds of cuts have happened elsewhere and we all need to grab the razors off the authorities before they create a culture that self-harms to the point of psychic collapse. 

Depleting the opportunities for students to have places where they discuss and are exposed to urgent social concerns and ideas about full human rights, and are challenged to express their views in language in ways both accurate and moving, is dangerous.

SJB: Maybe some of these concerns will come out in your future work? You haven’t always written about families; your first novel Night Swimming (1998) was, in essence, about friendship. How have your themes have changed and morphed over the years? Do you want a reader to come away with something different now that when you started writing?

EN: I think in the poetry I’ve grown more confident about realising that sometimes the things I struggle with or despair over are legitimate subjects: that is, ecological issues, political issues, anxiety about technological developments – so I have a bit more bravery about tackling things that used to make me ask, well who am I to write about that topic? I’ve realised that the questions and tangles and doubts I’m dealing with aren’t mine alone, I suppose: they’re not because I’m particularly naive or stupid or soft or incapable – or no more than many other humans. I’m more confident in my under-confidence!

In fiction, I still want to write work that combines the lyrical and sensuous with an understanding of character, and yet also has enough subtle plot turns that the reader wants to read for narrative as much as for a particular linguistic colour. I still think I could do better, push harder, think ‘wilder’. I don’t think my basic understanding of what makes powerful fiction has changed, and the ideal book is ever out of reach, but that’s what makes the attempt endlessly compelling, I think. 

SJB: What advice would you have for young people who want to be writers, or writers at the start of their career?

EN: The advice I have comes directly from my experience, so it is probably only useful for particular personality types. But I’d say first, love solitude. Win decent swathes of it for yourself so that you can work without distraction. Second, find readers of a like mind whose critical opinions you can trust –readers who will look at early drafts and give you an honest opinion, not false praise, which won’t serve you or the work. It will just delay the day of reckoning, otherwise known as the form rejection letter.

Third: it is a long, long game. You don’t arrive and think, oh sunny glade of elfin laughter, happy gambols, I am free of the chains of self-doubt and snarled-up drafts! A writing career isn’t like learning how to ride a bike: you don’t practise and practise and then say, Eureka, I’ve got the knack, let’s freewheel downhill through peach blossoms from here to eternity! With each poem or novel there is a sense of being a novice again. The problems you’re tackling with each new work morph. So you need stamina, doggedness, and determination.

I think one of the best ways to recover from rejection, or from the pits of difficult drafts, is to go back to the stimulus and inspiration that quite likely compelled you to try writing in the first place. That is, give yourself the reward of reading brilliant books again.