A conversation about Christchurch, engineering, and being a lover of mess with exciting debut novelist Pip Adam.
Pip Adam’s debut novel I’m working on a building is a startling work. In it, we witness the misanthropic Catherine unravelling through time, from when she’s a powerful God-like figure working on an epic building project on the West Coast through to the novel’s end/beginning (it is told in a reverse chronology). Adam’s prose is physical—unlike the fragile buildings and characters of her book—and it carries a density and evokes a strong sense of feeling (Catherine is named after Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights). Her background as a short story writer—including the wonderful collection Everything We Hoped For—pays off. Adam manages to skilfully handle the shifting voices that surround Catherine and isolate the shards of her life to create something of real emotional power.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: This is my usual starting question—why writing?
PIP ADAM: Why writing, oh my god. That’s a tough one. I think why I often write is to try to work out things that confuse me or things that I don’t understand. Often it’s one of those thought exercises made into life. There’s a lot about the world that makes me angry or confuses me and I’m often thinking what’s that about. I try to write from a point of view that’s counter to my own and work out why someone would think that way.
BG: Your background is with short stories. How much of a change in focus was writing a novel?
PA: I really enjoyed the change in focus because I’ve always thought I wouldn’t have an idea I could extend to a novel. What I realised is that it’s actually about pacing; it’s about taking slightly longer and writing extended themes. I enjoyed the practice of holding a whole story in my head. With short stories you kind of live with them for a while, but with this I got to live with it for over two years. It was also a more wiry beast; if I shift something here, it’s going to break things a hundred pages back. I’m not very good at crosswords, but I enjoyed the strategic stuff.
BG: One of your great skills as a short story writer is condensing complexity down to a few pages. Was it intimidating having such a broad canvas?
PA: Yeah, I think it was. What I’m always trying to do is break my writing. I feel that with the short story I was starting to get into a real rhythm. I could almost see the end and how things were going to tie up. Personally, I enjoy baggier things. I know the novel’s not very long but I quite enjoy the openness. The condensing of stuff—it was fun and it definitely suited a particular time of my life. I enjoyed opening it out and making it baggier and inviting more people into the story. It was quite intimidating to start off. What I would keep doing was ‘finishing’ the novel. I’d go, “oh and that’s how it’s going to end [straightaway].” Maybe I don’t have much patience.
BG: I got the sense the short story background helped with the novel because with each chapter you were able to isolate moments and shift register and voices.
PA: Definitely. I think that that helped me a lot. I’m a big fan of that David Vann book, Legend of a Suicide, and [Jennifer Egan’s] Visit from the Goon Squad. Just that idea that you can reignite the machine each time. With each chapter you could. I think that’ll be my next challenge: to try to write something that sustains itself in one trajectory all of the way through. I think with this, I could suddenly go, “we’re in the first person now, and nope, we’re going to do this”’ It was kind of like readjusting the perspectives and the rules each time. I enjoyed that. I think that it connected with what I was reading at the time.
BG: It really gives a multi-sided view of Catherine.
PA: The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall—I really liked that book and what I tried to do is to build her in the negative, to try to build the shape around her to let us see into her. I wanted to see other people’s view of her. That is the thing with character, they can be different things to different people. I wanted to show that.
BG: I read that your inspiration for engineering came from your PhD, and from a Masters critique. Why did that grab you?
PA: There are several things that seemed to excite me about engineering. One of them is that it’s a language that’s very distant from creative writing. To start, I was reading architecture texts. Architecture texts are quite expressive and they talk metaphorically; they’re quite close to creative writing. Structural engineering is so far away from it because it’s very concerned with extremely technical language and mathematics. That interested me. There was a way of looking at buildings in this abstracted, physics way. Also, once I started meeting engineers—and this is a fact, it isn’t my opinion—[I learned] there are very few women who are engineers. It is a hugely male dominated profession and I’ve always been interested in worlds that are homosocial. There is just one sex and they’re all getting together, and I’m interested in what that does to language. I thought I was going to be writing another book about boys, like the soldier stories, but then Catherine popped up and that changed slightly. Those were the two things that interested me: the bizarreness of the language, and also that I was completely out of my league. I’m always really keen to be out of my league. I like it when I’m struggling and I like it when I’m gasping for air and I’m confused. I think that’s helpful.
BG: Through my day job I’ve had to read a lot of technical texts, and what has struck me through reading them is how strict and removed they are from emotion and everyday feeling.
PA: Yeah, I think that’s such a profound thing. As an outsider, the thing that interested me is that engineers need buildings to be so far away from human. If they are human, if there is any way it could be faulted through hubris… a lot of books about buildings present buildings as symbolic of human endeavour. It’s the same with architecture. Architecture is often trying to express things—this is an ‘open’ space, this is an ‘hones’ space—and I think with engineering, what they need is for the building to be completely alien. I like that book [Stanislaw Lem’s] Solaris, where our humanness is a problem relating to something non-human. The technical language completely reflects that to the point where people are mentioned as inhabitants. Even when they draw engineering pictures of people, they’re all the same shape, and a person becomes a weight rather than a person. I was excited by that because people often say I write cold or frosty characters, and that I’m detached. I am interested in how detached we can be.
BG: I don’t find your writing cold in the slightest. To me, your writing is almost physical in its prose.
PA: I think so too. There are so many different ways of being. Not everyone’s experiencing the world in the same way.
BG: One thing that’s interesting is that you present these buildings as fragile monoliths being broken down into components. They’re almost as fragile as your characters. You’re going the opposite way of how we view buildings as a concept.
PA: That fragility and the fact that the buildings are not still is something I noticed about the engineers. I see a building and I think it’s not moving; it’s great, it’s stuck there, and it’s strong. Yet engineers are often talking about flexibility and displacement, and a building can’t stand if it doesn’t move slightly. That came very clearly out of there. I think we do have this idea of buildings being something that they’re not and once I started reading into that, they seemed the strangest things. We wander around inside them and they’re in the road; they’re very odd. I have this thing where in a lot of the books I read, the buildings are symbolic of their characters, but what I really liked was the idea that maybe the characters were symbolic of the buildings. I was just reading the first chapter again, and it’s all about the Romance of the big and the Romantic, Ozymandias’ feet, these huge things we build. I’m trying to write Catherine in that section and get some kind of symbolism of the building in the characters.
BG: With the earthquake you have in the narrative, the buildings become really unstable and unpredictable because of external forces.
PA: The thing with the earthquake was to get them moving. I needed them to move a lot more than they do. Following the idea of animating them, I got interested in the Golem, the modern day Prometheus. Catherine thought that she could create this thing that she had complete control over—and she did—so it does what it’s supposed to do. But what it’s supposed to do is terrifying. I liked that relationship she has with buildings, because I think that it is different to the one she has with people. It’s closer to what you’d expect her to have with people than with buildings. It was almost an innate kind of relationship. The earthquake was there originally to get them moving, but then it was there so that the building would revolt, and she would have this moment of, “do I love these things or do I hate these things?” Earthquakes, yuck.
BG: I know you came up with the germ of the earthquake idea before Christchurch. How much of Christchurch made its way into the book?
PA: I think a lot. It was impossible to be writing it without it. A lot of the engineers I was hanging around with and working with were going down to Christchurch. There were briefings and it was constantly around with that. Also, a large degree of the frustration and misunderstanding that happened politically around Christchurch finds its way in there. Again, trying to work out “what the fuck.” One of my favourite chapters in the book is about the East of Christchurch, Wainoni and Aranui. That was where I lived and worked when in Christchurch. I worked in the mall there. It was completely abandoned. There were these magnificent communities there that were being ripped apart. I had quite a few friends who were living there, so trying to work out that kind of thing. This weird disappearing of the earthquake that happens—even me, I was talking to people weekly from down there, and we would be up here, and I’d go down and think “far out.” You’d think everything was fine down there. It would have been a different book if it hadn’t happened.
BG: I must admit, I grew up in Wellington. I knew about earthquakes, but I had no idea about their repercussions or their long-term effects, and the stagnant nature of the recovery.
PA: The thing that I really noticed was the rhetoric of resilience, this dreadful pushing down of trauma. It makes me feel really, really sad. In Wellington, you get this idea, a Hollywood idea of what it’s going to be like. It was so different from what I expected.
BG: The rhetoric was interesting, because it was the rhetoric of wartime.
PA: Totally. Even the resurgence of “Keep Calm and Carry On” into the pop culture. I feel like that it’s almost everywhere. I don’t know if it’s to make people feel better, or people outside of Christchurch feel better, but it definitely felt like wartime, right down to some of the weird stuff happening with media down there and information transfer and the way the central government came in and took over a lot of things.
BG: You’ve presented the book in reverse chronology. Why did you choose that stylistically? It really worked well.
PA: Laurence Fearnley suggested it and I went home and tried it. What I loved about it is that it becomes an ‘untelling’ of a story. It becomes this controlled deconstruction of a life. I read Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. That has much stronger rules on it than mine does in terms of reverse chronology, but what I noticed was the inevitability. I’m always telling people that you need to write a short story that has possibility and can do anything, but there was something about the inevitability here. Catherine could never commit suicide. There was no way that she could die because you had seen her. There was no way out for her and to me her largest problem is that she can’t give up. There’s this weird hope that comes into her every time that she wants to give up, and she won’t lie down. In ‘Featherston Street’, she wants to lie down and die and she can’t. I like that the reverse chronology stuck her in that—the inevitability was there. Also, I liked the idea that she’s not a nice person, but as we unwind, we get to see the making of that person. It’s not redemption, but there’s something in there where we see the germ of the prickliness, the nastiness. She’s mean, she’s negative, she’s a pessimist. It’s nice to see the germ of her as a child.
BG: I liked how it added depth to her character. It didn’t feel contrived at all either, it was loose and free in the way it shifted.
PA: The book has been in several different orders. It started off all over the show; it was scrambled. And then it went in the right chronological order. It has been fun because once it went in that backwards order, it felt like that was the way to go. I did loosen the reins a little bit. It changed the way I felt about the book. Thank you Laurence Fearnley.
BG: I found interesting the way you presented these streets as structured and ordered, but your characters find themselves in there by accident. It’s disorder in the way we use this supposed order. I liked it all the way down to your depiction of the Pompidou Centre [at the end], which in theory is meant to be this perfect use of space because it’s so open—and yet your characters manage to get lost in it.
PA: That was another thing that was in there—the absolute struggle between order and chaos. It was one of my first things that I hooked onto Catherine. When she goes to Pyongyang, it’s bliss for her. That was how I had North Korea explained to me: people had come in and shat on it, and it has been a really unlucky place. When someone came in and said, “I will be your father,” that’s an attractive thing. I think that’s the same with her, that order is so helpful to her. I think the manmade is comfortable for her, but nature is not comfortable. The Pompidou Centre is, “how can you get lost in there?” I’m not sure where she goes for that amount of time. That’s something I’m constantly trying to work out in my head, and that goes to higher ideas of religion and karma: how much is there control in the world, and how much is there complete chaos. I like those ideas butting against each other.
BG: Your short stories have those characters—this sense of disorder in what should be a structured life.
PA: I’m a great lover of mess, and I really, really like mess. Janice Galloway was here and she said, “life doesn’t make sense, but fiction has to.” What I’m really interested in is how can you write fiction that doesn’t make sense in the same way that life doesn’t make sense, yet make it compelling. How do you write nothing happening? I saw this documentary on Marina Abramovi? and she said the hardest thing to do is nothing. I do like that in a short story. I remember Fergus [Barrowman of Adam’s publisher VUP] saying to me when he first read them, that one of the problems with the stories was “there’s no redemption in them.” But that’s the thing—life doesn’t redeem, we don’t redeem ourselves. But then I think maybe stories are meant to be fun.
BG: It works for me, maybe we’ve got similar worldviews. I guess the final question is what’s next? Do you have an idea of what you’ll work on next?
PA: I’m feeling quite excited because I like that idea of going back to a space where no-one’s watching. There are a whole bunch of things happening that are interesting me and I just like this idea that at the moment I’m not even sure of the object I’m creating, which probably sounds wanky. I like this idea that I have no idea what it’s going to look like, but there are these themes that are interesting me. I’m reading a lot about whales and killer whales, and the sliminess of water, and I’m reading the Bhagavad-Gita and Hare Krishna consciousness. This is my favourite part of a new process. I do feel like I want to write something else. I do hear about people who say, “no I’m not going to write again,” but there’s the fact I’m talking to other people, and collaboration is another option. I feel free now that this book is out of the way. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s always been, it’s got to be a book, it’s got to do this. It feels really good.