Conversations: Novel Beginnings

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
img_novelsLumière contributors BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM and THOMASIN SLEIGH, authors of You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here and Ad Lib respectively, get talking about the process of writing a novel.

Behind all the writing on arts and culture to appear on The Lumière Reader each week, it’s easy to forget that we have novelists, poets, playwrights, visual artists, and filmmakers in our midst. These contributors, tirelessly devoted to writing about other people’s work, are often too modest about their own creative pursuits—or at least are in a bind when it comes to having their own work discussed on a website they’ve committed to as arts critics. Indeed, almost every one of our past and present contributors are involved in their own personal projects outside of their association with The Lumière Reader. To name just a few: Auckland Theatre reviewer Sam Brooks latest play, Another Dead Fag, has just concluded a successful run; former books and creative writing editor Amy Brown’s new epic poem, The Odour of Sanctity, was published in July to acclaim; and staff photographer Catherine Bisley’s second short film, Wide Eyed, recently screened at the New Zealand and Melbourne International Film Festivals.

Meanwhile, Brannavan Gnanalingam, a prolific critic and feature writer who has contributed commentary on film, music, and literature to The Lumière Reader since 2006, recently followed up his 2011 novel Getting Under Sail with the Parisian-set You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here. The story follows Veronica, a journalist who moves to Paris expecting romance and escapism, but instead finds loneliness and indifference. Thomasin Sleigh, whose perceptive criticism has bolstered The Lumière Reader’s visual arts pages since 2008, has just completed her debut novel, Ad Lib, which charts the after effects of the death of a famous singer on her daughter. Ad Lib is due for release shortly; both books via New Zealand publisher Lawrence & Gibson.

As a way of introducing a space for our writers to discuss their practice within a broader conversation about art and culture, I asked Brannavan and Thomasin to talk about their respective projects and their influences as emerging novelists.—Tim Wong, Editor

*   *   *

THOMASIN SLEIGH:  Funnily, the first question I have is about your next book. Your first book is written in the first person. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here is written in the second person. Is the third book going to be in the third person?

BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: It will in the first person again.

TS: Why did you decide to write in the second person then, as an extension to the first question?

BG: I hadn’t thought about it before I thought of the concept of the book and started writing. I thought the second person would work well for a couple of reasons. First, I had the thought of the French use of “on,” and their use of it to stand in for “one” and “we”, but also how we often say “you know etc.” I also read a great French book called Suicide by Edouard Lévé, which used the second person. You were inside and outside at the same time. And then also, I was interested in the idea of self-surveillance and the way you imagine these people out there, judging you in real-life. The idea of discipline, and the Foucauldian idea of self-censoring yourself because someone is going to judge you for not having your hair right or listening to the wrong music even though there might not be someone there judging you. I thought of using “you” as this imaginary voice telling you what you’re doing wrong.

TS: It’s very compelling as a syntactical device, because it drives the reader forward. In the first and third person, I don’t notice the repetition of the pronoun as much as I did when reading your book, because it’s an underused way of writing. The repetition of the “you” accumulated. It seemed to come to a head at the end when Veronica goes out to dinner with her uncle and the repetition went on and on and on and the “you” sounded like someone hammering at the door.

BG: I was thinking almost instead of building, a kind of tightening and constricting. I started off loose: a woman arrives in Paris, but that’s it, but I was imagining through the repetition it tries to become as claustrophobic as possible.

TS: Yes, I can see the tightening in relation to the idea of self-surveillance and how much the reader knows about Veronica. The “you” slowly grinds away as you, the writer, filter in facts about her life, and why she’s in Paris.

I have a question about the Bataille quote which begins the novel: “confronted with tragedy itself, why pay attention to its portents?” When I first read your book, Veronica made me feel sad and listless. Was that quote an indication of an emptiness inside of her?

BG: I think so. Also I was interested in Blue of Noon by Bataille because it captures the listlessness of 1930s Europe and the impotence of his characters who are just drifting from city to city. He wrote that in his afterword, which he wrote after World War Two. And it was almost his way of re-interpreting what he wrote. He wrote Blue of Noon in 1935, but it wasn’t published until after World War Two. This moral malaise of the 1930s exploded into something far darker and bleaker than he could ever have imagined, but it’s hinted at in his book. I wasn’t trying necessarily to draw that explicit a link between what Veronica was going through and what happened in Europe in the ’30s, but there’s definitely a sense of darkness in Europe, which I felt when I was there.

TS: Is it an economic darkness, or a social darkness?

BG: I think both. I think also a fear of what nationhood means in a place like France. There is a real tension about the EU subsuming European identity and the French are very passionate about their culture. You can see a darkness in Greece with the Golden Dawn, you can see it in Hungary with their ethnic cleansing of the Romany, and the rise of the Far Right in France and Italy.

TS: It feels like Germany’s on a knife edge as well, and you imagine how terrifying that would be if the Far Right rises again in Germany, and you have Germans continuing to say they don’t want to pay for Greece’s debt.


The other side of Paris. Image by Brannavan Gnanalingam.

BG: I was trying to link that personal malaise to this wider societal problem.

TS: It’s funny, it’s almost like it’s the purview of post-colonial nations to have this internal angst or complexity around what we are as a nation. We feel like it’s our role in the colonies to think about that. It’s interesting to bring this self-reflection back to the colonists.

BG: I think there’s a tension in France of knowing you were once a great powerful country. I think that feeling that you’re no longer great dominates French discourse. Or at least I got that sense when I was working there.

TS: The connection I drew from the Bataille quote, “being confronted by tragedy,” was about the limits of language, and the limitations on understanding tragedy through language. Is Bataille suggesting that’s an impossibility?

BG: I think so. Bataille also often presents his characters as searching for some sort of perfection, but you’re quickly brought back to the disgusting, the pornographic, the violent. I’ve always loved that about Bataille, he captures that interwar period better than any other writer.

TS: I’m reading Thérèse by François Mauriac at the moment—it was written just after the First World War. There is something in the intensity of the language or the angst that I can see paralleled in your book; the existential questioning.

BG: I spent the entire period of writing and build-up reading a lot of French literature. I read a lot of Balzac. And a bit of Zola, but Balzac really grabbed me. He’s so relentless and so ruthless with his characterisation. He’s so brutal on greed and on money. Despite being a Royalist and deeply in the Catholic Church, he was Marx’s favourite writer. And I was also reading a lot of interwar writers, like Bataille and Céline and Roussel. I’m nervous using Céline as an inspiration point because he went into horrible anti-Semitism and wrote these horrific pamphlets, but Journey to the End of the Night is incredible.

TS: How much of your writing is based on your real, lived experience?

BG:  I find when I’m thinking about a certain book, I look at stories and see if they’d work. There was quite a lot from my time in Paris that I brought into this book.

TS: In a way, it’s an oblique travel memoir, with books that you’ve read woven in.

BG: And a pastiche of history and art and memories as a way of constructing a city. There were moments—the homeless women kicking her bucket on the subway, the American tourist chasing after someone—that I witnessed. The party scene—that happened in Wellington and I can easily imagine that happening in a city like Paris.

TS: It’s funny, you feel like you’re pushing things when you’re writing and you’re not sure if a reader will go that far with you, and then it turns out events have happened in real-life that are much stranger than you could possibly have written about.

BG: In fact, the idea for the book itself came from this fairly infamous song by the Eversons, ‘Harlot’. I was watching it from afar. I was really interested—and going back to the [Bataille] quote—these guys, the artists and the record label, when you’re an artist you present yourself as the conscience of society and all I saw there was conservatism, misogyny, and tribalism. The idea immediately when I was writing this book was the failure of the arts and the failure of journalism, these supposed moral arbiters, and this helped inspire what I was writing about. That was the framework in which I wrote Veronica, someone who was so caught up in her own world, and caught up in her own life, she ignores her own prejudices.

TS: What do you think about the positioning of writers as the conscience of a particular society?

BG: With the French writers in the 1930s I was reading, I think there was definitely a sense of trying to engage with what they were viewing. I guess frequently in tumultuous times, people either look to the past and use that as a way of reimagining the contemporary, or get bluntly into the contemporary. The ’30s were so dramatic that you’ve got plenty to grapple with. I definitely think there’s an introspection about French culture that lends itself to this writing. That’s why so many of the great filmmakers, artists, philosophers, and writers all come from France. There is that real culture of…

TS: …critique, self-critique. Which is the opposite of New Zealand, I would argue.

BG: Yeah. Self-surveillance—it’s natural that a French person came up with that concept.

TS: It’s also a very timely concern. I think the next couple of years are going to see a lot of change in the politics of the Internet and media surveillance.

BG: I think even pre-Internet, people performed different roles. The Internet has added an extra level of how you perform. That’s something that happened in your book.

*   *   *

img_adlibBG: The characters perform certain roles, but they’re not quite sure what they’re meant to be performing. It feels very contemporary.

TS: I wanted it to be clearly set in the present—through the use of social media and the way people use technology. I worry though, about the idea in the book of the characters being aware of themselves, because it’s not a new idea in literature and that’s one of my concerns, that Ad Lib is quite dated in terms of the issues it’s dealing with. I would argue that it is a signifier of conventional post-modern literature: the characters reflecting in on themselves and their behaviour. I guess my hope was putting it in a relatively normalised narrative and that that would still throw up some interesting ideas.

BG: For me it didn’t feel clichéd at all, or fit any stock standard post-modern narrative. I found it really interesting in the way it was quite a banal set-up for quite an extraordinary story. Kyla was a very everyday person in quite an extraordinary situation.

TS: Is that believable?

BG: When I try to analyse things, I try to break things down to micro-movements and I think even in extraordinary situations you find yourself doing very banal things. That didn’t clang at all.

TS: An event which got me thinking about some of the themes in Ad Lib was a music festival I went to in the UK where the Foo Fighters were playing and Dave Grohl, who is this really lovely everyman in music, brought out his two kids on stage. They were really cute and they had these ear muffs on and sat on the speakers. What does that do to your brain as a child, to be in a position where tens of thousands of people are looking at you? This is one of the questions Ad Lib is interested in—celebrities using their children as props for their public characters.

BG: Kyla is scarred by her role as the daughter of a celebrity in Ad Lib.

TS: It’s all about the act of looking. Kyla is used to being looked at by groups of people. I didn’t realise until someone pointed it out to me, but I always wrote “the audience” as singular—as this singular mass.

BG: You also use doppelgangers and this sense of things not being particularly trustworthy.

TS: Most of my writing has been about art; it’s my academic training. I guess Ad Lib ended up being about images as an extension of that, and my interest in visual culture. And again, this isn’t a new idea, this idea of the narrative being really unstable. But I’m still interested in making the reader question where information is coming from. This translated into putting Ad Lib into a placeless place; I wanted the action to take place in a slightly blurry context.

BG: Even the time is very fluid. The space is very fluid—travelling around for three days—but even time is not particularly fixed or trustworthy.

TS: It ties back to this idea of images being mutable and being easily corrupted. I wanted the language to be similarly fluid and not crisp at the edges. I initially started off with these grandiose surreal plans but as I worked it became less abstracted. I realised the book was about the protagonist Kyla, and I did actually care about her as a character, even though I had all of these characters being all self-referential and quite superficial and surface. The book is about Kyla and there is a real trauma in her life and at the end it does have a psychological resolution.

BG: You added real depth to Kyla with her history, and there are points you want to go “stop the camera, go do your own thing.” But at other points, you can see her trying to manipulate her life but it was outside her powers. I appreciate fully-rounded protagonists, or flawed; I’m much more interested in flawed characters.

TS: I definitely think Veronica had shape to her as well. Also as a reader, you can identify with Veronica having agency over her own story, which is an agency Kyla explicitly has to exercise. You can sympathise with Veronica. This is a French theme: Veronica’s pushed by all of these various forces that she doesn’t have any control over, and the social and economic milieu she has found herself within.

BG: That was definitely a Balzacian idea. You have these characters within a strong social construct. A lot of people find his books boring because he is so strong with setting up the characters. But then it’s almost from that point he lets them go. You know where it’s going to go and you don’t want it to go that way. Balzac very rarely lets the audience off. I was definitely interested in the idea of trying to construct Paris as a character. Veronica is so hamstrung by what she can do in that place.

TS: One of the things that is grim about her is that she doesn’t find any joy in other people. That’s the core of what makes me feel sad for her. I really like the scene where she meets up with Alexander and the weirdness and irresolution of their meeting. It ends and unspools. There’s a bit of sexual tension, which you think maybe something’s going to happen, and it doesn’t. I like that.  There is no other character that she has true identification with or happiness from.

BG: My favourite book, if push came to shove, is Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. I love books in which it’s an individual against the city. Notes from the Underground is a deeply strange and bleak book and it’s completely unlike anything else he wrote. He is just a character who just doesn’t fit in, and he literally and figuratively lives underground, and there’s no sense of time. I was also thinking of books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. They’re always invariably men.

TS: Why did you choose to write about a woman?

BG: There were a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to stretch myself as a writer. And then second, when I was travelling I really “felt” race and I never really feel race in New Zealand. I felt like an Other when I was travelling. I tried to imagine that kind of feeling of when you’re walking and you know you’re going to be judged in a particular way and I tried to imagine how that would work in gender.

TS: The threat of the city feels heightened because she’s a woman. There are a couple of scenes when she’s pursued and the danger is more prominent. It was quite late in the piece when I realised she was a woman. I guess because I know you as the author, I assumed it was a man.

BG: You try to put yourself into different viewpoints. My first book, Getting Under Sail, is definitely autobiographical in a construct sense, and it’s definitely me as a voice that’s speaking. I wanted to try something different in You Should Have Been Here… and see how that works. In Ad Lib, it’s interesting; there’s no way that it’s going to be viewed as autobiographical. You go past the stereotype of the first novel being about something that you know.

TS: I started writing this when I was London, and I had been travelling in Africa. When I was in the UK I was thinking a lot about my cultural identity, which sounds really lame. I was born in the UK and I always had this sense that I should have some identification with British people and the way they behave. But English culture is very impenetrable for me. There are little fragments that I kind of understand but because my parents are Zimbabwean, I really find England an alien place. It felt way too difficult to write about myself. Maybe one day. I also can’t really key into this idea of New Zealand, and “telling our stories” as a post-colonial nation. I feel very outside of that discourse because I’m not a “New Zealander,” having not been born here or having any extended family here.

BG: I have similar feelings about not feeling part of a “New Zealandness.” There have been some great books recently, but I don’t think I can write something like that easily because I don’t feel connected in that way.

TS: Maybe that’s why Ad Lib is in this “no place.”

BG: Do you think it reflects global culture?  Obviously things are very American or very English, but in the way we have adopted different cultures.

TS: It’s an interesting question of whether the collectivity of globalisation—like you were talking about the situation in the EU—whether that makes you emphasise your cultural traits more or whether it makes those traits more amorphous and disparate. Maybe it’s both of those behaviours occurring concurrently.


Paris, the romantic view. Image by Brannavan Gnanalingam.

BG: I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love and I feel bad knocking it, having only seen the film, but I think so much travel fiction, especially Parisian travel fiction, is very solipsistic. Eat, Pray, Love is incredibly self-centred. I have this philosophical viewpoint of we’re all different but difference being banal. We still have this belief in difference being important.

TS: What do mean by we’re all different but difference is banal?

BG: I don’t find gender, race, etc. meaningful. They’re definitely important to individuals, and I don’t want to deny that historically and socially. Groups of people have been left in a disadvantaged position because of these definitions, but as a concept they’re actually meaningless. I’m sure you don’t think the same as Helen Clark or your sister for example, even though you’re lumped in this same group. Just as I don’t think in the same way as Muttiah Muralitharan just because I’m “Sri Lankan.” Because they’re such unstable concepts, therefore for me at least, they’re banal. You can define yourself however you wish, but the terms are ultimately unable to describe difference adequately and exclude those who don’t “fit” into the definition. As soon as you acknowledge that, that’s a fairly a positive position.

TS: In your book, Veronica is constantly having her difference reinscribed, following the methodology you just outlined.

BG: Despite my personal viewpoints, I know that society definitely reinforces these ideas, that you must act in this certain kind of way if you’re a woman or if you’re non-white etc. It’s definitely prescribed behaviour for minorities rather than dominant groups. I’m conscious that Veronica is deemed a woman and must therefore act in a certain kind of way. I think right from the start, I write about her “having to” put make-up on.

TS: She feels like she’s embarrassed that she has to dress up in order to go out. There’s some lovely moments like this one you can identify with as a woman reader. They are satisfying, even if the tone is often negative.

BG: I think the way Eat, Pray, Love, works and its solipsism is dangerous in the way it views travel and views interactions with cultures.

TS:  Shoring up your self-satisfied sense of identity.

BG: It’s all do-re-mi-mi-mi. It’s about going to India to find your own spirituality, going to Bali to find your love. So many books about expats going to Paris are about finding love.

TS: I wonder if it has any historical precedence. Maybe it’s just now because of the situations that people are able to do it in—a year in Provence or in Tuscany or wherever it is. That real strong vein of contemporary literature.

BG: They’re bestsellers too.

TS: Yes people can live vicariously through these really, really, rich people.

BG: What I was trying to do as well, maybe quite bluntly, was bring that back to my original Bataille quote. As soon as you think about your own self-preservation, your own self-needs, is when you start to “Other” other people and you have this process in which things happen to people that you can turn a blind eye to. I was hoping that the ending didn’t come out of the blue, and it was something that was built up to.

TS: I loved the ending and it felt like that the surrealness of the last paragraph had been happening through the whole length of the book and that it had just been unwritten; and then it was suddenly made explicit. It was great.

*   *   *

BG: The mother is such a strong figure in Ad Lib, but is never there, she’s almost a Rebecca-type figure?

TS: I like that idea that she’s a controlling force in the narrative but she’s absent. Ad Lib jumps back and forth through time through present and the past.

BG: But problematically so, because her past are stories, not “real.”

TS: I made this connection to Lady Macbeth, because she’s an insomniac and so is the mother in Ad Lib, and also because I’m interested in female characters in predominantly male pieces of literature, so I was quite happy to explore that and make those connections.

BG: I really liked the Lady Macbeth reference.

TS: I’m really glad you said that because I was worried it would be too clunky. Her character is typified by guilt. In Ad Lib, the mother feels guilty but she doesn’t know why, maybe because she’s so famous.

BG: I guess there’s always an opportunity cost, e.g. relationships.

TS: Again, I was writing about something I know nothing about, being really famous. I imagine—and maybe this is totally not true—but once you are famous, the world must be such a strange place. The book is about the desire to be looked at, but also the horribleness of that process. Again, it is not that new, but Ad Lib is based around a Reality TV show. Reality TV is not a new phenomenon, but my thinking was that it’s only going to become more prominent. I don’t see these issues going away. The mother is unfortunate as a character because she has no voice for her to defend herself.

BG: I suppose in everyday life you are haunted by these figures, who might have shaped the way you are.

TS: One phrase I use, “she was unbearably radiant,” is important. I wanted these two positions of her being beautiful and repulsive to be constantly at play. She loves Kyla but she’s also quite a terrible mother, there are these two oscillating, competing forces in Ad Lib.

BG: It was interesting thinking of the children of celebrities, like Michael Jackson’s daughter.

TS: Yes I saw something the other day about how she supposedly tried to commit suicide. This is fact and fiction being weird.

BG: You’ve been given this public persona that you don’t necessarily want and your legacy is so strongly defined by your parent’s. I think of Jacob Dylan or Julian Lennon, these guys who must have just had this horrible inability to define themselves because they’re so caught up in their parents’ legacy. Nowadays you also have these people who are famous for so brief a time. What does that do to people coming after that? Obviously Kyla’s mother is a successful musician, but what if you were Kyla’s daughter?

TS: You’d be the daughter of a someone who was on a Reality TV show that was on for one series. Maybe we’ll all become progeny of slightly famous people, because we’ve all had our fifteen minutes.

BG: I liked the zombie feel to the supporting characters, people playing their prescribed roles and blindly going about it. Was that an image you had of your characters staring at the screen?


Attic vase, from:

TS: Yeah, I guess it’s the anaesthetising effect of staring at an image. I was really interested that there are writers and readers of the text, but within the text, there are readers and writers as well. It’s a classic post-modern trope and I wanted the camera crew to be their readers of Kyla’s story. Their behaviour came from the writing process. I had a feeling, a vibe I wanted to imbue the novel with, but I wasn’t quite sure how the camera crew was going to behave. They became this zombie-like force in the process of writing. That seemed to make more and more logical sense as the book progressed. I wanted some quite surreal moments in it and the camera crew are the drivers of that surrealness most of the time. They were really fun to write.

BG: Is there a link to your role as a writer?

TS: Maybe. Maybe I felt like the camera crew at 5.30 in the morning when I was writing the book. Staring blindly.

BG: You wield a lot of power, but don’t realise how much power you wield.

TS: Yes, it’s strange, there’s also a violence in the process of filming (and writing?) that I wanted to point to. There’s a lot of theory in visual culture about the process of looking. The camera crew are a tool with which to explore those ideas.

BG: It’s a violent concept the idea of coming to someone’s life and constructing it. I know from film theory, there’s the same ideas of film capturing death, because the moment you capture it, it’s gone. Kyla’s life is one of dragging her into this image of her life that’s not really her.

TS: There’s a moment when she has agency and she decides to take control of that process.

BG: But it’s a futile sense of escape.

TS: I also wanted a sense that this filming process is normalised.

BG: It’s productive too, because Kyla uses it find out more about herself and create something worthwhile.

TS: When the show comes out and she’s watching it, there’s nothing terrible in there. The plotline suggests that they might show her in a terrible light, but it’s nothing like that in the final series.

BG: Also given your love of art, there’s something pleasant in amongst the violence.

TS: There’s an outcome to it that makes sense in the culture it’s been constructed within.

BG: You wonder how someone who grew up being so constantly in the public eye must deal with this lack of privacy. Even in the everyday-ness, this constant feeling of surveillance, is there agency?


A still from William Keddell’s 1985 documentary, ‘The Maintenance of Silence’.

TS: I think yes. You know in the ’80s, there was that guy who destroyed the supercomputer in Whanganui. I was reading about it this morning weirdly enough, because an artist had done a project on it. He graffitied on a wall, “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.” I feel like there is still a moment that we will choose the surveillance that we put ourselves under.

BG: You’re perhaps a little bit more optimistic than Baudrillard with his hyper-reality?

TS: I think so. I think the core of the book is the realness of Kyla and her relationships. I was always figuring out and fighting with myself when I was writing Ad Lib. I think the reality and humanness of Kyla’s relationships have a validity.

BG: It’s interesting though, you’ve presented everybody in her life as unreliable.

TS: How is she going to forward in the world surrounded by that?

BG: Is there agency in just acknowledging this fact?

TS: Maybe. She has enough nous, humanness, and intelligence to be aware of the instability of her environment. Maybe that’s refuting Baudrillard. I don’t know where she got her smarts from, but somehow she got them.

You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here’ (Lawrence & Gibson, NZ$23) is out now. ‘Ad Lib’ is released in March 2014. The cover design is by Judith Carnaby.