Author of Live News, a collection of short stories, and currently working on her second historical novel, Maxine Alterio took the time to speak with JENNIFER VAN BEYNEN on the phone from Dunedin about her first historical novel, her writing process, the disparity of her narrators Ė gender-wise and culturally Ė and what it takes to produce a book so historically, culturally, and emotionally rich.

*   *   *

JVB: Iíd like to start off with your short stories. Itís often said that short stories are more difficult to write than novels because theyíre more compressed, theyíve got to be more watertight, as an individual piece. Do you find them harder than writing novels?

MA: Theyíre different. I work full-time as a tertiary educator, so I can hold a short story in my head and work on it in the evenings and weekends probably easier than I can a novel. A novel I think, for me, needs a concentrated period of time, whereas a short story, maybe between three and five thousand words, is much more manageable. But, it does come with its own challenges. I particularly like the short fiction genre, I guess because I can explore a whole lot of different themes from the perspective of different characters on many different occasions. It is a challenge, I guess, every word has got to mean something, and move the story forward. Iím quite a sparse writer, so I actually like honing down what I want to say or what I want the characters to say, so for me thatís actually a really interesting and fun aspect. Iíve got to get a sentence to say all I want it to say with as few words possible. So I really like short stories, and the novel was a different challenge altogether.

JVB: Ribbons of Grace is very location-based, and a lot of your stories from Live News also had a very strong sense of location. Would you say that your sense of place is something that ties Ribbons of Grace quite firmly down?

MA: My family has a long association with Arrowtown. Weíve been going there together for many, many years. I was about twelve when we were there on a Christmas holiday, when I actually overheard a conversation that turned out to be the inspiration for Ribbons of Grace. I think we were at a New Yearís Eve party, and I heard two men talking, and one said ĎWell, when they laid that Chinese miner out they discovered that he was a sheí. I was really fascinated by that, and also, I suppose, because as children we played up in Arrowtown a lot in the Chinese settlement. There were some abandoned cottages, old buildings, a shop... we used to imagine ourselves as people from other countries, and adventurers, and I always thought that the Chinese seemed very brave and honourable to come from so far away and to work in what was quite a difficult environment in the 1870s. There was a lot of prejudice, and I often wondered what it would be like to be a Chinese person in a country like New Zealand, and how they managed. When I started to think about what it would be like to be a woman disguised as a male, that added another layer.

JVB: Thatís something I was going to come to with regards to your narrators, and having to switch between genders. But this story that you heard, was that something that almost nagged at you, that you carried around for a long time?

MA: Absolutely, yes I always knew from that day, that I would write a novel about my imagined character.

JVB: And you knew it couldnít be contained in a shorter medium?

MA: Thatís right, and I also knew that I had to do an apprenticeship, and I needed to learn how to write, both in a fictional sense and in an academic sense. And I thought too that I needed a lot more experience about life and living, and people, before I tackled a novel that was from three different perspectives, and three different cultures, and was quite reflective.

JVB: I found your narrators very authentic Ė their voices were very distinctive and I really felt like I was with the characters. With regards to switching genders of narrator, is there any kind of technique that you used?

MA: (Laughs). Itís hard work, itís really hard work. Because Iím interested in multiple perspectives, I wanted to look at the key event from three different viewpoints. It took me quite a long time to find each of the charactersí voice. Probably with Ming Yuet, I spent a year just reading Chinese literature, particularly Cantonese, learning about the food, the history, the social conventions of the time. I also talked to a Chinese friend of mine who helped me choose Ming Yuetís name, because it means Ďmoon who burns too brightí, and that actually seemed to describe her really well. She was resilient and a risk-taker, but she also had a vulnerability. To shift into the Orcadian voice of Conran I visited Orkney in 2002. That was really worth it, because I had read some of George Mackay Brownís poetry and his newspaper columns and his memoirs Ė†I think itís called For the Islands I Sing. Itís beautiful, but even though I had a feel for the place, I wanted to hear the language spoken. So I crossed the Pentland Firth, like the locals in the old fishing boat Ė it has the old plastic buckets tied to its seat Ė and I didnít do many of the tourist things, I just walked everywhere and listened, and lurked in cafťs. I just immersed myself really, and when I was there it was July, so it was light twenty-four hours a day. I could just go out day and night, walking and thinking, finding out things that I mightnít have been able to find out through primary sources or by Googling.

JVB: Do you think that immersion is whatís given the book such an authentic feel?

MA: I think it really helped. And, the other thing that helped was that on the day I was about to leave I was passing a funny little shop that seemed to sell everything. I saw an Orcadian dictionary in the window and I went in and bought it, and that was just wonderful, because thatís where I got words like Ďblooteredí, which means very drunk, and Ďdrookledí, which means soaked through to the bone. The other thing that happened was that I had a young research assistant working with me at that time in my academic career. She was from Inverness, which is in Scotland, but she knew a little bit about Orkney, and so I would check out some of the terms with her, and some of the words. She was invaluable, and also her Dad, who lives in Scotland, he read the manuscript for me, and went through it with an Orcadian friend of his, just to make sure we did have the language correct. Because one of the hardest things was trying to balance out how much Orcadian accent to use and still have easy reading for the reader. I enjoyed developing Conran as a character.

JVB: I used to have trouble when I came across accents in a book, but I think that when itís going on in a long narrative you definitely start to tune in and listen to it that way.

MA: Yes you do, and you start to hear the cadence. Also, I tried, with going from one voice to the other, to think of those voices as almost like a border crossing, so that you had to feel the difference, going from one culture to the other. Itís almost like a metaphor for how hard it must have been, for two people of two very different cultures to start engaging in a relationship, a very loving relationship.

JVB: Yes, that was a great bit in the middle of the book, where they start to really connect. But yeah, I think with the language, obviously thereís no way you could reference it, it would throw the whole thing, but itís really nice to not know what certain words mean Ė to just pick it up in context.

MA: Yes, thatís what I was hoping.

JVB: Also with the cultural differences of the characters, did you have any concerns Ė though I donít think this happened in your book Ė about overwriting your characters, and taking away their voices through the strength of the authorís?

MA: Yes, yes you have to be quite careful with that one. Um, I think I actually became Ming Yuet in some ways, and she became part of me. Iíll give you an example. When I was writing the initial scenes, when she was in China and wanting to get away from the opium pirates, I would be down in my den, which is under the stairs at home, at night. I would sometimes race upstairs to make myself a coffee, and I would say to my partner in broken English, ĎWant coffee?í (Laughs). Because Iíd actually become Ming Yuet, I think, while I was down in my den. Also one of the things that really helped, for me, is to read each chapter out loud, and to actually make sure Iíve stayed in character, that Ming Yuet is Ming Yuet. I have a writing group that I go to every second Wednesday, itís got some great writers in it, and so they would very quickly pick up anything that wasnít true to that character.

ďI tried, with going from one voice to the other, to think of those voices as almost like a border crossing, so that you had to feel the difference, going from one culture to the other.Ē

JVB: So when youíre saying you became your character, you were quite deeply immersed in a certain headspace?

MA: Yes, I think I was dreaming as that character. And even with the Orcadian character, Conran. Iíd sometimes go away and spend a few weeks at a friendís place in Arrowtown to write, and it was a little cottage built by two Orcadian brothers. It was almost like the shift was talking to me, I would be sitting there, and thinking about Orkney, thinking about how an Orcadian might approach a particular aspect, something about the story or a particular scene, and if I just sat quietly, I donít know... the cottage just wrapped its arms around me, and told me what to say. It was very special.

JVB: Could this book have been done, do you think, if you had not been able to go back to that area?

MA: I donít think I could have written it without going back, because each time I was up there I would walk through the old Arrow camp. I donít know if youíve ever been down there, but when I was a child it was just a few bricks and rocks, and there was one little shop that was in reasonable condition, but everything else was in ruins, and now itís set out like the authentic camp that it once was. So each time I went up I would walk through that camp, and sit on one of the tree stumps, and just be still. The other thing I did was go to the cemetery, and although none of the Chinese are buried in the cemetery in Arrowtown, there are a number of the European characters who are. I gave some of those European characters cameo roles in the novel, because Arrowtown is so small, that everyone would know who the druggist was, or who the hotelier was, during the 1870s. So I would just sit very quietly, at the foot of someoneís grave who was in the novel as well, and just kind of get a feel for the history, and the person. I spent a lot of time in the Arrowtown archives, and I suppose too I had a memory of Arrowtown from childhood as well as the town as it is now, and I used that. For me, place is almost like another character. You mentioned that you noticed in the short stories too, that place was important to me, like the first story, ĎLive Newsí, Wanaka, and even Orkney Ė that one I think itís called ĎBlowing Kisses to Russiaí.

JVB: With being so deeply invested in your characters, and being so close to them, upon completion of this book and seeing it all bound up, so to speak, do you feel like itís a fulfilment of what you wanted to do, or do you feel quite drained of everything?

MA: I feel... hmm. I feel a whole lot of things, Iím thrilled that itís finished, and Iím thrilled that the bookís been received as well as it has. I feel like I have honoured most of the Chinese and the European characters, from the feedback Iíve had from those communities. It is the book I most wanted to write, even though it is my third book. Also, I do feel a little bit bereaved at the loss of the characters; itís nice to be talking about them (Laughs). Because they do become very present, my characters became very present in my life, and to just leave them behind is quite difficult. I joke with one of the historians from Arrowtown, he reckons heís going to start tours up to Swipers Gully to where the hut is. Because so many people seem to think theyíre real characters, Ming Yuet and Conran, and theyíre asking about them.

JVB: Thatís a very good sign, for an author.

MA: Yes! (Laughs). He thinks we should have something, but for me, theyíre definitely imaginary, theyíre not based on real people, just an idea. But itís great that people have connected emotionally with them to such a degree. I had one person ask me at a talk I gave whether Ming Yuet was buried in the Arrowtown cemetery. That really shocked me! But Iíve already signed another contract with Penguin, so Iím onto another novel. Iím finding it quite difficult to really get into that because I havenít totally left the characters from Ribbons of Grace behind. Iím off to the Auckland Writers and Readers festival in May so Iím talking about them again, of course, then Iím at the Christchurch festival in September. I donít know how other people manage that transition from one novel to another, when youíve got to talk about the previous novel and write the next one. So Iím just learning how to manage that one.

JVB: Yes, it must be tough having been in that headspace for such a long time. Was the process a couple of years?

MA: It was longer than that for me, I wrote the synopsis in 1999, it was actually part of a PhD application in creative writing at an Australian university, and by the time I had written the full PhD proposal I was so much into the novel and loving it that I flagged the PhD! Because I just thought, ĎOh my goodness, Iím going to have to write what was going to be an exegesis as well as write the novel,í and I was a little bit wary of examining my own work because I was concerned I might lose the creativity if I examined it too much, do you know what I mean by that?

JVB: I do, itís something that I struggle with occasionally, when reading critical essays or discussing things to a very fine point. Iíve been reading some interviews from the Paris Review collection, and theyíre very interesting, there are some real heavyweight writers in there, but often they donít really want to talk about, you know, the technical or detailed aspects of their work. They brush it off, they say Ďitís not important, I canít explain it, you canít ask me thatí.

MA: Thereís a magic to it that Iím scared of losing if I really start to analyse it too much.

JVB: So with the amount of information contained in the book, was it hard to choose what you put in, or did you have very specific research goals?

MA: It was hard to choose actually. Probably only ten percent of the research that I did went into the novel. I like to have the context, almost before I start writing, so I know when the European wars were and I know if there was any connection between the clearances, and immigration from Orkney, although there was very little Ė it was mostly Scottish Ė but I like to know all of that stuff. Not so that it can go into the novel, but just so that it informs my thinking. I probably did far too much research when I think back, but I didnít know what I didnít need to know. Whereas with the second novel, I have done a lot less because I suppose Iím just that wee bit more experienced.

JVB: Was there anything in particular that you came across while you were doing all this research, that altered where you wanted to take the book, or made you change tack, or include another scene?

MA: Hmm. I didnít know that the child Fang Yin was going to die. That just happened, that was a tricky and very poignant scene for me to write. The other thing, I didnít know how I was going to dispose of Fu Ling, Ming Yuetís brother, but I knew that she couldnít travel as a woman into the goldfields, I knew that sheíd have to take on a male identity because it was rare that unaccompanied Chinese woman left China at that time. But I really struggled with the murder, and I had several attempts at how he might die. When I finally wrote that murder scene, I remember coming up the stairs, and saying to my son and my partner, ĎIíve just committed my first murderí. You know, they were watching cricket and rolled their eyes at me, but I was just so relieved that Iíd finally discovered... the Ďright wayí doesnít sound right, but... a way that would work for the novel. So that was tricky. I also didnít know how it was going to end, and I knew that there was no future for Ming Yuet and Conran, it was just too difficult at that time, but I wanted it to be a relationship that was important to both of them, that would be remembered by not just Ming Yuet. It had to have an impact on the town as well. And I remember I wrote those last couple of lines, I canít remember the exact line, but itís something like, ĎI will come to you on the windí. I knew that that was the last line, but I didnít know how I was going to get there. It was just through the process of writing the epilogue that I really decided, and then I went back and re-wrote some of the aspects. I think I did about seven or eight drafts. It took a long time to thread all the narratives together, and have the key characters and the minor characters all have a role that was in keeping with the time and the place, and the story.

JVB: I was going to ask you about the epilogue and the prologue, which do round the story off really nicely. I think theyíre both very beautiful and Iím assuming theyíre both coming from the same time, same person. So you wrote the prologue after you finished the draft?

MA: Yes, after I finished the first draft, but then I went back and changed a number of things, so that I was happy with the prologue, so I had to go back and change a few things, keep re-working.

JVB: So when you say you didnít know that certain things were going to happen in the novel, did you just start a particular scene and see where it took you, or where the feel of the character was going?

MA: Yes, I would write something, and then think Ďno, Ming Yuet wouldnít say that and she wouldnít do thatí. So Iíd have another go, and then Iíd think Ďyes, thatís exactly what sheíd say and what sheíd doí. Thatís what you talked about earlier, keeping with the character. With Conran, Iíd written from a maleís point of view before in my short stories, but this was the first sustained male point of view that Iíd worked with. And I had to keep saying to my brother, and my son, and my partner, Ďis this what a male would say?í Because although Iíd think it was, when I asked them, thereíd just be a slight variation in what he might think or say. When I think of Conran, heís had input from a number of males Iíve known! (Laughter).

ďI do feel a little bit bereaved at the loss of the characters; itís nice to be talking about them (Laughs). Because they do become very present, my characters became very present in my life, and to just leave them behind is quite difficult.Ē

JVB: With regards to homosexuality, which is brought up in the book as Ming Yeutís mining partner Soo Tie is gay, and also appears towards the end of the book, was that something you wanted to bring up because it was a historical prejudice in that community that needed to be addressed?

MA: Well it was interesting, because there was no evidence that there was homosexual activity between the Chinese miners; but there are rumours. So although I couldnít find any evidence, there were stories. And it just seemed appropriate, when so many men were living in close quarters, and even if culturally it would not have been acceptable at all... I just wanted to put out the idea that there was a possibility.

JVB: I suppose with your main character being a woman dressed as a man and then embarking on a relationship with a man...

MA: Yes it linked, it linked to that as well. And also I needed Ming Yuet to have a protector, and I couldnít have had somebody that was sexually attracted to her, I didnít want someone like that. Soo Tie just emerged as a gay character, he just arrived like that. I talked to a few gay friends about what he might have been like during that time, and I also was exploring love right along the continuum really, sort of asking the question Ďdoes it really matter which sexual orientation we are, isnít what matters the fact that thereís a depth of love and concern for our partners?í

JVB: Which is something Soo Tie found.

MA: Yes, and I just liked him as a character, I really liked him. It sounds funny when you make someone up to say you really like them?

JVB: I suppose Iíve started characters who I thought were nice and they turn out to be horrible, so... we need the whole variety I guess.

MA: Yeah thatís right, and any of the people who were real, like Ah Sipóhe was lovely, because every time I went up to the Arrowtown museum he would pop out of every archival box I opened. He used to contribute to the hospital fund, or there would be a photograph of him sitting in a garden, he was everywhere! It was like he kept saying, ĎPut me in the story!í And when I finally decided to give him a role, he stopped coming out of the archives, it was like he was happy. So any character that insisted they be in there, I put in, and I made sure that every real character was presented in the best possible light according to the research, and that anyone who was a ratbag was completely fictional. It seemed to be the safest way to go, and it just felt right too, for all sorts of reasons.

JVB: Out of curiosity, have you been to China?

MA: No I havenít, but Iíve got a very good Chinese friend, Eva Ng, so I talked a lot to her.

JVB: I felt like I was there, in the first part of the book.

MA: Well I hope so, lots of people have said that. I read Jim Ngís books too, which were wonderful, Windows to a Chinese Past, Jim is Evaís husband. And they were fabulous, the research was so good, and I donít think I could have written it without those books and their input. And Neville Richieís PhD thesis which was about the excavation of the Arrow Chinese camp, that was really helpful too. So were some diaries, and historical texts, and I think just the time I spent immersing myself in things Chinese helped. And maybe because I have had a long marriage to an Italian, so someone from another culture, Iíve had perhaps a little bit of insight into what itís like to part of a personís life when theyíre from another culture. So maybe that helped a bit too. Iíve travelled quite a bit, but not to China, no. It might come, and then it would be interesting to see if there would be anything that I would have put in, which I havenít. I just hope that I have honoured the Chinese who did come to Arrowtown.

JVB: Have you had much response from the Chinese community?

MA: I have, Iíve had some wonderful responses from all around the country and from overseas, things that people are saying. Like book clubs are getting in touch with me and theyíre saying that the feeling of alienation was for them real and authentic, and many people from other cultures have been in touch, including Chinese, to talk about the alienation and how we belong and donít belong when we move countries. So thatís really come through, and also just about friendship and love and loss, you know, those themes. So the feedback has been superb actually, itís been wonderful. I think Iíve had one terrible review and all the rest have been great. So Iím very happy with that!

JVB: Something I liked as well that came across, apart from the acknowledgement from Ming Yuet in the prologue that every story has different ways of being told, was also how all the characters are from somewhere else, that everyone is an immigrant and away from their homeland.

MA: Thatís right, and I mean itís still pertinent today, isnít it?

JVB: Yes, I suppose it is.

MA: I hadnít truly realised just how strongly I believe that thereís room for all of us, and that each culture is to be valued and acknowledged. But I notice that with the second novel Iím writing, in some ways Iím exploring the same themes. Although itís set in Egypt and in France, itís about women who served in the Great War, and the emotional legacies on those women and what it was like for them to go to France and Egypt and live a life that was completely different to small-town New Zealand. To have quite intense love affairs and be part of a world, a manís world, that they would have been denied back in New Zealand. And then what itís like after nursing over there, to come back and try and fit back in. Again, itís about how do you belong and not belong, once youíve moved out of a familiar context and had a life that your family and friends have had no part of and donít understand. So yeah, I seem to be becoming more and more interested in that concept.

JVB: Did the idea for your new novel start like Ribbons of Grace, with a powerful phrase or concept behind it?

MA Ė It did, thatís an interesting question because it seems to be that thereís something I overhear that sets me off, and this one was a nurse historian in the second novel, itís called In Quiet Exile. A nurse historian friend, we were just talking over probably a glass of wine and she was telling me about an event that happened in the Aegean Sea in 1915, and I just felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew that I would write that novel at some time, I didnít know it was going to be the second one, and it probably wouldnít have been had not Penguin and Random House both offered me a contract for Ribbons of Grace, and I decided to go with Penguin for lots of reasons, but one of the reasons was that they offered me a two book deal. So I had to come up, on that day, around the board table, with an idea for that second novel, and so this wonderful overheard conversation developed into a story as I sat there talking to Jeff Walker. (Laughs). And so then of course I was committed, and I have to write that one. I swore I would not do another historical novel because it takes so much time and thereís so much research, but here I am doing it. Then I want to write a really contemporary, gritty novel.