This week we talked to Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh about their time as writers in residence at the Pah Homestead.
Kit: So can each of you tell me a little bit about what you are working on?
Zoe: So I’m working on a new novel, which is a family saga that’s set in a small town in Scotland between 1935 and 1970. I think it will end up being more than one book but this first book centres on a couple, who for various reasons have ended up in this town that they’re not from. They have various secrets they are trying to keep from everyone else and they are very ambitious, wanting money and success but also social standing in the town. I’m relatively close to the end; I’ve been working on it for a while so I’m hoping I’ll finish it here, which is quite exciting and terrifying.
Kit: When you say that might end up being more than one book, do you go into the process knowing that is the case? Do you plan for a series?
Zoe: I didn’t know at all for this novel. I thought it might be a big book with lots of different voices but I think the story of these two individuals is enough on its own and I think that other peoples’ stories will fit into other books. I suppose the timescale might vary slightly, but I could definitely pick up on the next generation going into the 50s, 60s, and 70s. One of the things I am interested in is how society changes over time and I think everything changes in this period before, during, and after the war. In the 60s and 70s there is a different social landscape that actually might not seem as dramatic if you are in a small town. And small town Scotland is going to be very different from Carnaby Street in London but you would have heard of it and may wish things were different, so I think there is material there for another story.
Louise: Like Zoe I am also hoping that I will finish the piece I am working on while at the Pah. I fear there might be a bit more work but I’ll get to the end of the narrative at any rate. I’m at the end of a trilogy. This is the final book of three that explores a post-pandemic landscape; the books began in London and they progress northwards, so the final volume begins in Orkney. It’s about children of the plague who were all orphaned and brought up by foster parents. The children disappear from the island and my two protagonists (who have appeared separately in two of the previous volumes) have gone to try and find them and bring them back. In a different way from Zoe I am also thinking about economic systems and the way we run society within this book. Probably no one will ever notice this and maybe you shouldn’t be thinking about these things when you read a book, it should just be enjoyable, but it think it has an underlying message about processes. The island is a democracy and they have an election on their travels. They meet a feudal set up, anarchists and finally when they reach their destination in London, they meet tyranny. So, it’s a fast paced adventure story with guns and knives and sex and violence and a lot of dogs actually. I think the Pah might be inspiring me. I watch all the dogs around the park and their behaviour. Dogs have been good friends with us since the first human and if everything breaks down in society dogs can be dangerous also.
Kit: So both of you have overarching stories but there is a lot going on underneath the surface in regards to location, place, time, economy and systems. A lot of thought goes into that process.
Louise: It’s a way of exploring the world really and perhaps novelists are, like everybody else, just trying to make sense of the world around them and we do it through stories, which of course are hard wired into the human psyche.
Kit: So both of you have worked together in the past and you obviously have come over to New Zealand as a pair, albeit to work of separate project. What’s your process like working with one another? Do you share ideas and bring different perspectives to each other’s work?
Zoe: It’s developing as a really useful tool here because we’ve got time and space to focus on what we’re doing. I think we’ve always shared work and shared ideas to some extent. We read each other’s work first, when it’s finished or in progress. It’s really nicely to have a trusted reader.
Louise: Yes, we have little feedback sessions. The thing about doing that in any set up is that you have to make sure the person is ready for it. So if I give Zoe some pages, it’s about making sure it’s not at a point when she should be looking at her own manuscript and vice versa. Also, there are only so many hours you can write, you have to do some reading as well and I love reading Zoe’s work. We’re both working in the space but we work in separate rooms at the same time of day and later in the evening it’s great to be able to talk about what you’re doing.
Kit: What does the setting of the house do for you? Does is provide a new headspace for your writing?
Louise: It’s great to have focus. Zoe works fulltime at the University of Glasgow, I work there part time and when we’re in Britain we also do a lot of readings and performances and attend a lot of readings and performances of colleagues work. We have a busy social life as well, which is nice. It’s wonderful to be in this space surrounded by creativity and I think being surrounded by creative work is inspiring not just in the particularity. It’s great when you look at a work and think “gosh that makes me think of” but there is also the mere fact that people work and struggle to make and then show art, that behind every piece there is a journey. There is also the peace and quiet the house offers, there’s the park land, which is a godsend to be able to walk out and be able to walk for a while and come back. What does it give to you Zoe?
Zoe: I think you’re right and because the exhibitions have already changed quite a lot whilst we have been here there is always something new to come look at. We are both big readers but sometimes when you are writing a lot you don’t feel like you need more words, so it’s nice to have a visual outlet and I guess both of us work quite visually in our own way. Going to the artist talks and hearing about someone’s process, which is not the same but is parallel to what we are doing is very useful. As Louise said the park is wonderful and it’s great being able to clear your head and listen to the Tuis etc. We’re learning a lot of things and because of the nature of what I am writing about, people who are aiming for success and money, it’s interesting to read about the history of the house and the people who built it. You can see these stories playing out in the history of the house, so I find that quite interesting. Also, meeting Scottish people here and thinking about the possibility of people emigrating when they just can’t stick it out in Scotland. It’s interesting to talk to people and meet people who have left Scotland in the period that I am writing about. For them, there is still this fixed image of what old time Scotland was like. It was illuminating to think about it in that way because for us Scotland isn’t that, it’s continuous.
Louise: I think with all residencies the effect continues after you leave, so we’re here for this season and we’ve got this really privileged period of time where all we have to do is work on our creative stuff and we really go for it because we know when we go back there will be interruptions etc. Once you leave the effects keep on working. We are learning a lot about a country that we knew very little about before we came and you don’t know what will come from that. You don’t know whether it will be a further collaboration with an artist or a writer that we meet here. Maybe a story or a book set here? These things take time to percolate and we have continuous relationships with people we’ve met on residencies. I have one with a composer I met 10 years ago in Germany on a residency. We didn’t work together until probably 3 years after that residency and we’re working together a lot now. So you don’t know what might come, as long as you keep your eyes and mind open
Kit: Obviously you’ve worked on writing things other than novels. How do you find the process of collaborations on other pieces? Is it a different environment to work in?
Zoe: I think it is. It goes back to why residencies like this are so important. With a novel you are doing it on your own, you’re responsible, it’s in your head. Whereas we’ve worked together on theatre and opera and that kind of collaboration does different things, it kick-starts the process because when you’re in a dialogue with someone I think you come up with ideas more quickly but you also challenged more than if you were alone. So I think there is something quite exciting about that, as well as ending up with a product that is a team effort.
Louise: And there’s an extent to which you can’t write if you aren’t comfortable in your own company. You have to be someone who can spend 10 hours on your own. I think we both enjoy that aspect of it and in the evening we want to communicate and have some fun, some talk and some noise. You wouldn’t say that working on a novel is fun. It’s satisfying and it’s stimulating and sometimes it’s necessary to who we are as creative artists. You hope that it’s enjoyable to read but when you write you don’t laugh and that’s why I love when you have a collaboration that you laugh and hear other ideas and you have this exchange that is very stimulating. It can be frustrating as well because you aren’t in control and you have to respond to other people. Sometimes the idea that you would like to put forward is not one that they engage with and that can be frustrating, that’s part of the whole deal isn’t it?
Zoe: I think you are right and with a good collaboration when something goes wrong you laugh about it also, whereas when you’re working your own novels and something goes wrong you feel like crying. If you have a good relationship with who you’re collaborating with and something goes wrong or doesn’t work out you can kind of laugh it off and move it to a place where it does work.
Kit: When you work on a project, how much is it a product of where you are now and your past experiences?
Louise: I guess what we write and produce now is always an accumulation of the things we experience and have written up until this point. It’s also what’s in the ether around you, and we haven’t cut ourselves off from the world, this is a vibrant community, we listen to the news and go to the cinema. Auckland is a place where there are a lot of things happening, there’s a lot on offer and then there’s the street life, you know, you walk around and you watch.
Kit: Do you have any last thing you’d like to say? A message for young aspiring Kiwi writers?
Louise: If I had a message for young New Zealanders it’s that we’ve talked to a lot of young New Zealanders who love their country but often get the feeling that their country is not exotic, but I would say that everywhere is exotic and interesting and this is an interesting place you can write about it. We’ve also been trying to read some New Zealand writers and everyone should read Maurice Gee, he’s brilliant. So yeah we’ve enjoyed finding new writers and thinking of ways we can take them home with us.