Rare Interview With Author Janet Frame

This is a radio interview, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

EA: Tell me about your title, ‘To the Is-Land‘. Is this something to do with your feeling about the truth of words? And the way that you always prefer to take the very literal meaning of words?

JF: Yes, and it arose from my meeting with the word ‘Is-Land’, in an early story I was reading, one of those Whitcombes stories, and my refusal to accept that it was Island, that it really wasn’t Is-Land. Of course, looking at it n ow I chose the title ‘To the Is-Land‘ for obvious reasons, because of the obvious double-triple meanings. I assumed that words meant what they said, and everyone about me seemed to assume that they did. It was just a gradual process of learning the depths of words, I suppose.

EA: Words were always revered in your house though, weren’t they? As ‘instruments of magic’ I think you described them.

JF: Certainly, I think so. I was thinking of that knowing I was coming here to be interviewed by you. I was having a cup of tea at that little place next door and I took out the bus timetable to read. And I remembered that everyone at home always had something to read.

EA: When did you first discover you could make words work for you?

JF: Oh I’ve never discovered that… I’m still working at that.

EA: But it was a conscious search in your life, wasn’t it, to make the power of words into…

JF: Well yes, as I was writing the autobiography, much was revealed to me about my growth that I hadn’t realised. You’ve referred to my description of words in our family as ‘instruments of magic’. Spoken words, in childhood, arrive from ‘on high’ — as high as the sky — you can’t reach out to grasp them and play with them, they travel from room to room and in a magical way come in from outside the ouse. They can be anything — bombshells, globules of honey or small utilitarian hinges, hooks… You can see how words might become a most desirable property. Also in our family the spoken words were far from ordinary — my father’s recitation of the places he passed on his daily train-journeys; and my mother’s reciting of poetry.

EA: Did you perceive this as something missing?

JF: Yes, simply again, no one had told me I had imagination. I think I probably did have. I wasn’t even aware of it, but in a way like a material possession because I saw that anyone who did have imagination — I wasn’t looking outside into the world of New Zealand and its writers because I didn’t know about them — but I perceived that anyone who did have imagination was revered. It was something to be treasured, and anyone at school who had imagination was always spoken of with awe.

EA: I wonder how much the material deprivation that you were exposed to in your childhood caused this search for the imagination. Did you feel that there was something extra that you wanted to look for?

JF: I don’t think so. If so, very slightly. I think it was the excitement and importance of the poetry, reading and words, and when I began to write poetry I enjoyed it very much.

EA: Somebody once wrote of you that your art was — I think he called it ‘born from a predicament.’ Do you think that a different kind of writer would have emerged from a different kind of environment, or is it something that was going to be there regardless of the kind of circumstances in which you lived?

JF: I don’t for one thing know what kind of a writer I’m supposed to be. For myself, I think it was inevitable, whether I was materially deprived or not, that I should try to write. Simply because it was part of my background.

EA: Thinking about this aspect of imagination still, do you think the fact that you’ve chosen to lead a fairly solitary life — that you need that to be able to continue with your writing — means that you need to draw on a more heightened sense of imagination than if you were leading a life full of experiences and activity and crowded with people all the time?

JF: Well, I think a writer needs to lead a solitary life. When I saw that, you have to be in isolation to do your work. After you’ve done your work, well that’s another matter. The work is the response.

EA: You talk in To the Is-Land about the arrival of literature in your life. You describe it as ‘the other world’s arrival into  your world. The literature streaming through it like an array of beautiful ribbons through the branches of a green growing tree’. What precipitated that?

JF: Well, it was my discovery of poetry and prose. My mother always recited poetry. But then I discovered it for myself, reading for myself, and the discovery was mostly through school books of course. We had a shelf of books, there was The Last Days of Pompeii, John Halifax Gentleman, a book which we called God’s Book because it was full of swirling Blake-like pictures of heaven and hell. And the dictionary, packed tight with words. And the Bible which in my early years, the Wyndham days, had a special place. Every Sunday (and often on other days) Mother who was a devout Christadelphian insisted we read from the Bible, and when she (who knew many of the passages by heart) began to read I was convinced she had been there, and that impression remained. Her calm belief that Jesus Christ was ‘among us’, her reminders that any person could be an angel or even Christ in disguise made daily life extraordinary and exciting. Later, when we lived in Oamaru, the influence of religion diminished, for me, and was replaced, possibly, by the influence of words. I had an abiding memory of Bible-reading days, of the red-letter Bible which I used to pore over, trying to see significance in the lines in red print — ‘And seeing the multitudes he went up on to the mountain‘ — certainly that was red print material, but other lines were a mere group of and, went, saw, and verily…

EA: In some of your earlier novels I suppose what the critics call the dark side, the pain prevails. But in To the Is-Land it’s the joy and humour and the fun that is prevalent. And really, humour and satire have always been very important to you, haven’t they?

JF: In To the Is-Land I wrote the story of my life. My story, and this is me which comes out. There is pain, things happen, but whatever comes out is ordinary me without fiction or characters.

EA: How do you react to the critics who so often talk about that dark vision, that’s too narrow to share:

JF: Well, a novelist is subjected in reviews to the blurring of the fine distinction between the writer’s work and the writer’s life. Extreme views based on the content of a book might even pass judgement on what is assumed to be the outlook of the writer herself. In a sense this is agreeable, proving the successful reality of the book. For example, reviewers of The Adaptable Man referred to my desire to live in another age, the age of St Cuthbert. And also spoke of my interest in gardening and my knowledge of plants.

EA: Which is not true, is it?

JF: Well, I’m interested I’m not passionately interested in gardening. I’m interested in everything, but I’m not a gardener. And there was a character who was a gardener, an intense gardener. When I visited the United States, someone in California took me round Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens and pointed out every plant.

Others talk of my pessimistic outlook on life, and my habit of bringing disaster to the characters. This was in The Adaptable Man, referring to the close of The Adaptable Man where one character is left almost totally paralysed, able to view life only through a mirror. The critical references to me and my supposed personal views, I think they’re simply a failure of the art of literary criticism. Well, they’re an impurity of response which I suppose is natural, but who said literary criticism should be natural? The critic reminds me of the film The Fly, where the scientist, immersed in his experiment, doesn’t realise that a fly has accompanied him to the cabinet. When he emerges, his work finished, he’s part-man, part-housefly. I mean the critic has the sort of little impurity, but the writer works within the limitations or framework of her personality, although the outlook and the view over the territory of time and space and human endeavour is endless. But writing also is a kind of job. You ask about the dark side. Well, if I’m a plumber and I find there is a certain amount of work to be done in a certain street, exclusively with, say, the pressure of the household water supply, then you can’t assume that I’m not qualified also to fix your sewer or install a shower, or a swimming pool. If, as a writer I happen to work in a street where a few disasters occur, this is no foundation for the belief that I’m interested only in disasters. Similarly, if I write of a dark side, it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested also in the whole view. You must be.

EA: What about those critics who say that ‘the range of emotional experience of your characters is limited’. Is the full emotional range of experience something that you’re not really all that interested in expressing amongst your characters, or do you feel in fact that it is expressed adequately?

JF: Well I wouldn’t say that I have successfully expressed many things. I’m still trying, but I wouldn’t exclude any experience, any human experience from a book. Sometimes I think what is called the dark vision isn’t necessarily so. I’m an optimist. For instance, this man who is totally paralysed in The Adaptable Man and views life through a mirror, I think that’s a triumph. It sounds a bit twisted perhaps, but it is a triumph. There are people who survive. It’s a triumph of survival.

EA: How do you see the characters in your fiction? Are you quite objective about them? Is there a quality of detachment, or do you get quite involved with them?

JF: I’m interested in watching how they develop and how they feel and so on.

EA: Because if we can look at another character, in Living in the Maniototo, Mavis says ‘the writer knows that his want should fill the world, that to write you have to be at a terrible point of loss and stay there wanting to write, wanting in not out — certainly it’s a rat and mouse life’. Now accepting the fact that you say your characters’ opinions are not necessarily your own, it would still seem that that could be quite perilously close to your own experiences.

JF: I would think that — the bit about the rat and mouse life, that’s obviously not too well written that bit, but the bit about the point of loss. I think that’s good. I think that is right, correct. I think that it is important because so many people want to write and just don’t have that point of loss. Really, if you want to write you have to be desperate to write. It’s no use just spending your life saying I’ve always wanted to write a book. Still, I know there are circumstances which prevent… there are ‘mute inglorious Miltons’, I think they do happen.

EA: Someone once suggested that you were your own best character. But from what you’re saying, you’d totally refute that, I would think?

JF: I think so, obviously I am writing the book, so… It’s all in me. But not necessarily so because there are some surprising, I mean factual, characters about. Even if one didn’t invent any. For instance I chose to come on the bus this morning, rather than a taxi, because I like to watch the people on the bus and hear the conversation and it was much more rewarding time spent with nothing sticking to the surface. Whereas when I did arrive I had all these little events that had happened in the half hour / 20 minutes on the bus.

I don’t mean I will sit down and write about them. They are there, you see, and they will emerge when the time is ripe and fit into the pattern of things.

EA: Fitting into the pattern of things is quite important for you, isn’t it? A lot of your characters seem to be quite concerned with fitting in.

JF: That’s quite interesting. I don’t mean fitting into the patterns of affairs, but the whole of writing is expressing an emerging pattern and shape. And the satisfaction of when the shape is concluded, although there is the frustration of knowing it may not be quite right, or something is amiss. It’s something that emerges and this is for me the real joy of writing. I mean it’s not publication or anything else, it’s just as one is writing a pattern grows and everything seems to fall into place – very exciting, very exciting just to see it. If it’s a novel I see it happen. When I say ‘see’, I sort of perceive it, I can see it from beginning to end and it’s there. And so it’s the seeing it and seeing it’s there which is the motivation to write it. You sort of live through it, it’s like playing a record player and speeding it up like that and it’s there. Of course, you have to go through the awful task of sitting down and plodding, plodding, till you get to the end. With your life sustained by the, I suppose you would call it, ‘the vision’.

EA: What are the sparks that feed that imagination that are important to you?

JF: It’s everything that surrounds me. The thing which prompts you to sit down and write must be something which haunts you. You would savour it even without knowing, then it comes to mind, it comes to mind again, and you look at it and — I would give the example of again The Adaptable Man. He was very vague. He went to the window and he looked out and there was a patch of blue in the sky. He said ‘what wouldn’t I give to be in Sussex.’ Then he said ‘rinse whilst I’m gone’. And I hadn’t heard anyone say ‘whilst’ and it was that word that prompted me to write the whole book. I mean, the book was about a clergyman, and I did put a dentist in, I think. But I never saw that dentist again. It wasn’t an invented dentist, but it was the word.

EA: So, were you ‘haunted’ in the same way when it came to writing the autobiography? It must have been rewarding to be able to leave the invention of fiction for a while, for the truth of autobiography?

JF: I was anxious to finish it so I could get on with the novel [The Carpathians]. Again I wanted to have my say about my life because I have been rather disconcerted by some details which have been incorrect. I can’t escape from this desire to shape. The fact of writing it, and expecting people to read it, is rather an arrogance.

EA: I recall that you once talked about your novels as being explorations and this was really how you liked them to be seen.

JF: Well, I said that because I don’t (and it looks as if I’m justified in saying this) think that I’m very successful at creating characters, and my novels are explorations in the sense that I talked about the pattern; it is seeing what pattern emerges. I might have a view of the whole novel, everything that happens, but in the actual writing it’s like an exploration. Again, this is for me the enjoyment. It’s just the ideas which come. Sometimes they’re quite frightening because I know I won’t be able to put them down, just because of my lack of skill, you know. One always hopes for improvement.

EA: Were there any problems turning back to fiction after writing the autobiographies? You don’t make very strong distinctions between the genres of fiction and autobiography.

JF: Well, I am always in fictional mode, and autobiography is found fiction. I look at everything from the point of view of fiction, and so it wasn’t a change to be writing autobiography except the autobiography was more restrictive because it was based in fact, and I wanted to make an honest record of my life. But I was still bound by the choice of words and the shaping of the book, and that is similar to when one is writing fiction. I think that in writing there’s no feeling of returning to or leaving a definite form, it’s all in the same country, and within view of one’s imaginative home so to speak, or in the same town. They are different and each has its own interest.

EA: I wondered if writing your own story, having your own say, as you said at the time, helped to clarify the way people behave. By writing to find and to manage the characters of your fiction, in that qualities of their characters and personalities had become clearer to you?

JF: Well, the writing of the autobiography clarified for me things about my own life, and about the people I grew up with. But strangely enough I have always felt I have insight into how people operate, and saying this rather startles, even alarms me. Because I always feel people are so transparent in their behaviour. I suppose the fact is that to be interested in writing novels, you have to have a passion for reading people and their behaviour, and their lives. You are sort of an everlasting observer, and it’s not really a conscious decision. From as far back as I can remember, I have spent my time watching and listening, and wondering about what I watched and listened to. It seems a natural way of life. I do acknowledge though, that my insights aren’t always accurate. I tis just that I have grown so used to watching people and reading people, and reading faces and hearing what people say, and reading their natures; people who write do operate in this way.

I remember an occasion when I was at Yaddo in New York and we used to dine together, at dinner and breakfast. I think it was at dinner, we were all sitting round and there were some very brilliant writers sitting there, and I looked around and I could see everyone was talking, and I could see their faces were absolutely full of knowing what others almost were thinking, and someone made a remark, an observation, and there was a rather shy young novelist, a very good novelist, sitting opposite me. I could see everything I was feeling. There was a sensitivity; you don’t do it consciously, but when you’re writing you remember all these things that come to you and you choose what you want to choose.

EA: Have you got a retentive memory for holding that sort of material?

JF: I think so. Yes.

EA: So you don’t have to write down the store of memories from the past? They just come back naturally in the process of writing?

JF: No, I don’t need to write these things down. I have often been rather alarmed that I don’t keep notebooks because I always wanted to be a writer, and the ideal writer keeps notebooks. Virginia Woolf kept notebooks and she was my heroine for a long time. She still is, and Katherine Mansfield kept her diary, her notebooks. But I, since I have been grown up I haven’t kept a notebook, but I do write titles of stories, I am always looking, seeing stories, and someday I will write them all down.

EA: Did The Carpathians start that way? Did it just start as a title?

JF: Well, it started as a title, ‘ Housekeepers of Anceint Springtime’, which I felt was too much for a title. It became The Carpathians as I was writing it. You know, when I was writing it I felt as if I were in a whirlpool, and after I’d written it I wanted those reading it, I felt those reading it, to be wort of within this whirlpool, not lost. Everything was to be renewed, rebuilt, selves, thought, language, everything. It was a death but only in the sense that death is a horizon to be travelled beyond, it wasn’t hopeless.

You see in the first part of the book Mattina is collecting detail, and her object is to sort of perfect her love, and the second part of the book is where she carries all this detail away, sort of everything reaches this horizon and is sort of broken into pieces like a whirlpool, her identity; she has become two-dimensional and three-dimensional, she even has these experiences which are repeated in a kind of so-called novella (the ‘imposter’ novel), and so she finds herself sliding along on, probably going down into, the whirlpool. But there’s this sense of unease, I did feel it when I re-read it. I felt this particularly at one point. I felt what on earth’s happened, everything’s gone, it’s like a death, but it’s not a death, it’s not really gloomy.

EA: There is a wonderful twist at the end of the book, when the structure is revealed, when that enigmatic note from the person who signs himself JHB in the frontispiece is revealed. Can you tell me a little about how you arrived at that structure?

JF: It is part of the whirlpool. But I had a basis in real life for the characters. That has changed of course, and mixed with, on a palette, you know, with other things.

EA: The last part of the book written from New York reads quite differently from the rest of the book.

JF: Yes, well the first book was a collection, Mattina’s collection of detail and what happened to her there. Perhaps in a sense I didn’t build up enough of her relationship with her husband to make it so desperately important that she sort of achieved this perfect love. I was not directly concerned with my own memories in any part of that. Mattina’s memories of New York are not my memories of New York. But obviously they are chosen from a selection of observations that I made, but I didn’t have the experiences that Mattina had in New York. I just had to invent her memories, I haven’t written any of my own memories of New York, and as for returning to New Zealand because I belong here.

EA: Does the way you use memory change at all?

JF: I think so. I use less of my own memories than I did. I wrote the first volume of my autobiography for many reasons, one reason was that I wanted to get rid of the memories of the past up to a certain stage, to the time I was 40. Then I was really freeing myself from  memories.

EA: The Gravity Star really exists, doesn’t it?

JF: Yes. I wrote about it in the front in the note. The quote is from The Dominion. ‘A survey of distances to galaxies has revealed something that at first could have seemed implausible – a galaxy that appears both relatively close and seven billion light years away’. If that is true (whatever truth is), if one accepts that, then one sort of accepts total impossibilities unreasoned, yet one remains as one is. Well it’s a possibly of something new really.

EA: Did the book grow out of that report?

JF: Yes. That and the idea of The Housekeepers of Ancient Springtime. ‘Housekeepers’ is my word, but I was reading a poem of Rilke’s, ‘The Orchard’, and he wrote of ancient spring-time, Puamahara of course is not Levin, but I drew on the locality of Levin and the orchards that are out of town just before you read the Tararuas, the Carpathians. And the coming of the blossom each year, and so on, and the memory flower I invented.

EA: I was fascinated by the way you’ve used Mattina as the wealthy New Yorker coming to look at small town New Zealand life. And that by bringing her in as an outsider you really allowed us, the readers, to see this through her eyes. It was a total standing-off, an objective way of looking at things.

JF: Well you see, the technique of the stranger’s point of view is an old tried technique going way back to fairy tales. The stranger comes in and sees the view, it has been much used in all literature, especially in our literature which is full of journeys. Writing of Mattina and her view, or what I imagine her view to be, I would have betrayed my faith int he process of writing if I’d really given my own view of life in a small town. I wrote what  I imagined her view might be. I stress this because novelists are always confronted by a reading public that supposes all views are the writer’s views. I meet this constantly with critics who ought to know better, but who suppose that the character’s thoughts are my thoughts but in reality of course they are the thoughts of the character.

EA: Imagined thoughts.

JF: Yes.

EA: But is there still a certain amount of interaction between you and the characters before they find their place in the story?

JF: Depending on one’s skill. One is full of faults in the writing. Depending on one’s skill, one tries to imagine a character who has her own life, her own thoughts and feelings. Naturally, I draw from what I’ve seen and observed and people I have seen, but it’s always a mixture.

EA: You say that your characters don’t express your views, but do your characters sometimes say what you would like to say?

JF: Oh, yes. They sometimes do when, after they have spoken, I realise, well I wish, I might like to think like that. Fictional characters of course are a mixture of what I have observed and what I’ve imagined. But often, like other writers, I use characters to exploit the tricks of the trade — novels that feature novelists writing novels, but they are becoming a bit of a bore. Unless there’s an urgency in what is being written. I do have a great interest in the actual writing of a novel, in the technique and possibilities, but there are many many ways of doing it. I have allowed myself the fun of putting novelists in because they have so much to say, and of course they can take all points of view, but I do realise that’s not the only way to write a novel.

EA: You’ve mentioned the interior novel, the story within the novel which you call the imposter novel. Is there a sense in which you see the novelist as an imposter?

JF: No, I don’t think so, except that the imposter Dinny Wheatstone – her type of imposter demolishes herself and leaves her free to absorb any character which comes along – in that sense, the writer is an imposter.

EA: The imposter novelist Dinny Wheatstone says at one stage in her part of the story, ‘I have seized control of all points of view’.

JF: Yes, well that happens to a novelist, a novelist must seize control of all points of view.

EA: ‘And the words take charge of the telling’, she goes on to say.

JF: I feel that words take charge of the telling, refers to the delinquencies of language, or rather, the delinquent use we make of language. I refer there to ordinary everyday life, how often it’s not that the words are failing us but we fail them. And the extreme words can play executioner. Even the smallest words because they can persuade us, the use of them can persuade us into action that we might not have taken.

EA: And does that apply too to the structure of the story, that you can find that the use of a certain word indicates a path that the story might now take?

JF: Yes, or one tries if one is standing back and writing a novel to take control over the words and not let the words, one has to be watching them, always watching them in case they either escape or in case they go in the wrong direction. You have to have, I think, a writer has to have control over them. But there is a lot of reference here to words in everyday life.

EA: But then language has always been as important as that to you, hasn’t it?

JF: Yes, there is so much about language and about a lack of language that I wonder if the answer is music.

EA: Do you ever find that words have taken their own momentum, I mean you talk about needing to have control, but are there ever times when you decide to go on impulse and see what happens?

JF: I think when I’m writing and I write the first version, I don’t like to be held back by any wondering about what things are. I just go ahead and get it down, whatever the words are, they are there, but in the second version I find words that have intruded. The imagination however is free to go on, it is always free to, as I’m in the country I’ll say, graze. As I said before, I think it is essential to be in control of the writing because the words are the instrument, I mean you are playing a musical instrument, you must be in control of it. There is a comparison with music. In writing the hope is always that the imagination will come home to rest in invisible places. The bee comes home and leaves on each word traces of honey that we’ve never had before, that sort of thing.

EA: I remember you saying it was Frank Sargeson who gave you advice about using language and peeling down to the dead wood, peeling off the dead wood.

JF: Yes, well it was Frank Sargeson who used the phrase ‘dead wood’ when he was talking to me about writing a novel. I quote him, he said ‘a certain amount of dead wood is necessary’, he said it like that you see. But I’ve never agreed with this. A work of writing must be wholly alive and essential, yet if one pursues a metaphor of the dead wood, one can become convinced that dead wood is necessary and simply be persuaded by a metaphor.

I think that’s extraordinary. I thought about that, and I thought, well, dead wood is necessary in trees and so on, and I almost became convinced it was necessary in novels and again that is an example of the way the use of words can control actually our thoughts and our actions. But it made me think since then, I disagreed heartily with him when he said you need a certain amount of dead wood. Possibly because that was the only time I had shown him a story, I showed him a story called ‘An Electric Blanket’. He didn’t think much of it, you know. I really think poems are the highest form of literature because you can have no dead wood in a poem. I am not really quite sure what he meant, but when he spoke of it, he said in a novel dead wood is necessary. I had this image of just a hunk of dead wood.

You have asked me before, you know, if writing ever becomes easier. Well, each time it’s different, but I always feel that the many obstacles to writing. I am sure each writer has different obstacles, but you see there are so many before one writes, one has the theme in view and there are distractions and so on. When I had the Sargeson Fellowship, not having to housekeep and so on, I was able just to write out what had been in my mind for some time but hadn’t been able to be plucked because of the obstacles. Not only obstacles outside but I make obstacles for myself, of course. You have to have courage to write and I get very scared of what I see the book is going to be about, and I am frightened to face it. So it is rather good for me to be in that position of capture where I’ve got no excuses.

EA: I would like to come back to this question of the characters of The Carpathians again for a minute. The position of the characters in a novel reminded me of a painting to a certain extent, and the way that characters are placed in a painting. There is this sort of visual sense of the placement of the characters and how they will move.

JF: Yes, at the preliminary, they are being reduced to destruction, they’re being reduced to two dimensions. It quite scared me you know, that.

EA: And did you get over that?

JF: Well I found it very chilling, but I was quite surprised that it had its effect on me. Normally when I write a book, there’s usually only, say, I’m lucky if there is one sentence or one paragraph or one short scene that moves me. I read the book and I feel it, but I can usually concentrate on one sentence which I think well, yes, that’s all right. But here it wasn’t the book, it wasn’t what was in the book itself but what sort of surrounded it, like the jagged peak of the paintings of the Tararuas, which I remembered, which I felt after I read it.

EA: You’ve used surreal elements in your work for a long time, haven’t you, and The Carpathians reinforces this theme very strongly. Is surrealism becoming a stronger interest now?

JF: Well, perhaps it is. I would define it as what is beyond the real, the invisible beyond the real. But I don’t really think that that is surrealism. That’s my notion of it. It becomes like staring at an x-ray of the real and visible. That’s what I’m interested in.

EA: A way of taking the reader into more richly imagined experience?

JF: Possibly, yes, yes, finding more, as you said, more than meets the eye. I am interested in the crossing of incidents and so on.

EA: Are you saying, do you think, that we basically lack imagination, and that we should all really learn to look much more beneath the surface?

JF: I do feel that while not lacking in imagination we sometimes recoil from using it, or we are denied the opportunity. I think as I said before the proper use of imagination is a form of courage, daring to explore beyond horizons.

EA: And how far does the writer dare? How far can you push that dislocation from reality? Is the writer bound by limits of readers’ expectations?

JF: Possibly, but I wouldn’t think so. I wouldn’t feel bound. I am glad you mentioned readers, because you see readers are so important; if one is going to be published, the reader reads the work. It is a kind of courtesy to readers that I don’t think I always indulge in. I just write for myself and in that I possibly agree with some of the critics.

I do my best. It is just the best of my ability and I fail in some ways, and succeed in others. It is the best I can do.


Pamela Gordon talking about Janet Frame at Radio New Zealand

Janet Frame’s childhood house at 57 Eden Street, Oamaru on Google Earth


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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