Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beads on a String - Kirsty Gunn's art of writing

I've read Rain again. Author Kirsty Gunn is in Wellington as writer-in-residence at the Randell Cottage - a NZer, she's returned home from the UK and Scotland to pursue a project centred on Katherine Mansfield - and it's been a pleasure to catch up with her and hear her speak about and read from her work, and talk about other writers and their work.

It made me want to read something of Kirsty's again. So I opened up Rain. The lyricism and tautness in this short novel makes re-reading - not something I usually do - a wonderful pleasure. It's like reading poetry: the skilled and lovely language transports you.

When I first knew Kirsty, she was a poet like me. We were the two youngest members of one of Bill Manhire's early Original Composition workshops. There seemed to be a bunch of older, more experienced writers there including Jean Watson who published Flowers from Happyever at the end of the course. Kirsty remembers us explaining away the 'things' we brought along with the phrase 'this is just an experiment.'

Kirsty's poetic sensibility informs all of her fiction - in the way her language is exact, concise, freighted, original; and the way that language circles and pounces and uses repetition to create something incantatory, mesmeric. Rain, for example, brims with water in all its expressions. The breadth of Kirsty's vision in this concentrated drop of a novel is astonishing, almost shocking at times. Water is threatening, embracing, implacable, beautiful. The way people interact with it is an expression of them - the father with his fly fishing, the girl with her institute-learned swimming, the boy playing on the edges of the lake.

Speaking recently at a NZ Society of Authors meeting at the Thistle Inn in Wellington, Kirsty said that when she writes she gets the first line and 'a clear sense of place' and then she lets the story unfold piece by piece. By that, she means she writes a section over and over [sometimes seven or eight drafts] until it's done and then she moves on to the next section, and so on.

Kirsty Gunn:

It's like beads on a string [the way she writes a novel self-contained piece by piece ].

The story tells me what it's going to be.

She says an intense sense of place is pivotal in her work as it was in Katherine Mansfield's: the light, the colour, the setting. And she doesn't name the places but they are particular places nonetheless. Kirsty says by not naming the places she writes about she protects the privacy of the individual's sense of place. New Zealanders knew Rain was set in Taupo [there's the lake, the desert road....] but Scots imagined a lake in Scotland, Americans in America...

Then there's the tone or key of the story. Kirsty calls that her 'grounding place'. She likens this to painting and how artists build up colour layers in a painting - her novels [or 'things' as she prefers to call them] have an underlay of tone which cannot be argued with. It is, she says, like a kind of synethesia - she 'sees' the tone in the work.

Kirsty also talks about how the short story, being of limited space, sets 'an emotional temperature.' She suggests that to find this same thing in her longer work, she has been steadily shortening the time period covered - Rain is set over a summer, Keepsake at a time in a girl's life, Featherstone in a weekend, The Boy and the Sea over a summer's day.

While she's in Wellington [leaving September], Kirsty Gunn is working on a collection of short stories and a 'thing' called Thorndon which leaps genres and has Katherine Mansfield at its core. This is rather nice because the historic Randell Cottage is in Thorndon just up the road from KM's birthplace.
Kirsty will be talking more about her work at:

the IIML's Writers on Monday series: 12.15-1.15 pm, August 3 at Te Papa

the Massey University Writers Read series : 6 -7 pm, August 6 at the Wellington Campus 5D16 [Block 5] - drinks to finish, and 6 pm, August 7 at Palmerston North City Library.

These events are free. I'll be chairing the Massey events, so I'll continue to dip into Kirsty's books over the coming month or so. It's not all re-reading. Next up is 44 Things [Atlantic] which I haven't opened before - except to peek in the bookshop.

To find out more about Kirsty go here, and the Randell Cottage website will be updated with Kirsty's events over the coming weeks.


Unknown said...

Her short story collection The Place You Return to is Home is one of my favourites. I love the atmosphere and emotion she evokes. It was a huge influence on me when I was making my first faltering steps into fiction, and I still start short stories with a place, an atmosphere, a feeling, rather than a strong character or plot idea. Quite different from what I think has become the accepted norm of what is considered 'good' short fiction in NZ.

Anonymous said...

She came to talk with us in class a couple of weeks ago. She had an infectious energy. Her 44 Things looks interesting and is on my list now.