Elizabeth Knox on The Angel’s Cut

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews

The author of ‘The Vintner’s Luck’ talks about conceiving its captivating sequel.

Ten years after its publication, the last pages of The Vintner’s Luck can still break your heart. Sobran Jodeau has died, the years have passed and the fallen angel Xas wanders the Earth, hiding the scars where his wings used to be and grieving for his lost love. It feels satisfying and complete but for Elizabeth Knox the story is just getting started.

“I was always going to write a sequel,” she told The Lumière Reader. “But I didn’t get around to it for years, because Vintner was a success and I got stage fright.”

‘A success’ was putting it mildly. There on the table was a colour proof of a new paperback cover promoting Niki Caro’s film adaptation which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month. Earlier, Knox had turned the sheets over to show me publicity stills of Jérémie Renier and Keisha Castle-Hughes, and even one of herself in a cameo appearance on location in the idyllic countryside of Burgundy, France.

The Angel’s Cut takes up the story sixty years after Sobran’s death. Xas lives in 1920s Hollywood flying stunt planes for the film industry. He is drawn into intense relationships with Conrad Cole, a self-absorbed filmmaker and aircraft inventor with a striking similarity to Howard Hughes, and Flora McLeod, a badly-scarred film editor and former actress. All the while he is pursued by Lucifer who won’t let Xas escape the ongoing struggle between himself and God.

The Angel’s Cut is a captivating continuation of Xas’s story, more personal and vivid than The Vintner’s Luck but more unsettling at the same time. With her trademark depth and imagination she continues to grapple with big questions like what it means to live within time, what makes humanity beautiful, what God’s plan is and whether free will exists.

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CHRISTINE LINNELL: When I found out the sequel to The Vintner’s Luck was going to be in 1920s Los Angeles, I was wondering how that would work. But the thing that I noticed is that even though the setting and structure are so different, Xas is clearly the same character.

ELIZABETH KNOX: The hard thing was not for Xas to be the same character because I had held him in my head really clearly, but because The Angel’s Cut was in his point of view. It was harder having him be the subject rather than the object and to carry on with that sense that it was both a real world that the characters were in and a fable. But Hollywood worked well for that and that was one reason I chose it.

CL: Aside from the stunt planes angle—that makes sense because Xas wants to fly again—what was it about that era and Los Angeles in particular that appealed to you?

EK: I’m a movie buff. I used to tutor film studies. I did it for four years, and I loved doing it. So I guess that period of Hollywood has always been interesting to me. When I was thinking about where Xas might go it occurred to me that this would be an obvious place for him to wash up basically because of aviation, and of course because he just wanted to stay in the air.

Back in the barnstorming days he could earn some money, buy a plane and just fly anywhere. But then you get the aviation regulations which come in slowly after 1921, 1922, and it all becomes quickly just about as regulated as anything else. So he would have to find occasions to do it. So I thought, California, Los Angeles, the aviation industry. And then I thought, ‘Ah, the other major character in this book is going to be a film editor, because I want to talk about time.’ Film is about time.

CL: Absolutely. It’s the parallel between measuring time with the ageing of wine in The Vintner’s Luck and with film in The Angel’s Cut.

EK: That’s right.

CL: I’m not a fan of modern-day Los Angeles. But that boomtown era in LA has always interested me as well because if you went to the city now it would almost be impossible to find the old town.

EK: You find bits of it. Joan Didion talks very well about the old California and the old coast in LA. She wrote about the people who came there to cure their tuberculosis. It was famous for its hours of sunshine, which it’s still famous for, but it was also famous for its very clean air. So what you could smell back then in the 20s was the Californian hinterland, the sage and the mesquite, the endless orange groves, the flowers.

CL: In certain places, you describe the place getting built up, surveyors going out and plotting subdivisions.

EK: It’s like the life of the land that goes on in Vintner. It all happens in the background. You remember the first time that Sobran is left alone on the hilltop when Xas takes off and flies away what he’s hearing is the neighbour’s dog barking. And then at the end of the book, as Xas is standing alone on the hilltop with Sobran’s body after he’s died you get a train whistle.

In this case the life of the land is those gradual changes. You get the descriptions of how it looks from the air every time Lucifer picks Xas up and carries him off. You get the waterways and how they’re getting choked up with oil from the oil derricks out along the peninsula. You just gradually get all that, change after change after change.

CL: I thought The Vintner’s Luck read like a French novel. I can’t be sure, because I’m not French.

EK: Like a novel in translation!

CL: Maybe so! From the tiny amount of time I’ve spent in France it felt like a French book. And this definitely feels like an American book. You mentioned reading Joan Didion; what else did you do to learn about the setting?

EK: Well, I had all those 20s, 30s, 40s films, so I used that LA, the fictional LA. The really important thing behind the book is The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Characters from The Last Tycoon appear in The Angel’s Cut as extras. The unimaginative director of the sound movie that Avril’s in, he’s a character in The Last Tycoon; and Munroe Stahr, who is the main character in The Last Tycoon is one of the studio bigwigs. And real actors get mentioned like Cary Grant complaining about money.

So you get real actors, and you get actors who are made up for the purposes of the book. Obviously my Howard Hughes character isn’t really Howard Hughes—I didn’t want to follow his life exactly, I just wanted a character like him. And Howard Hawks, the same thing—I wanted a character like him so I could rename the films and have discussions about them. I thought, ‘I’ll just use some of the fictional Hollywood from other books.’ Actually, in an earlier version, there was a Nathaniel West character from The Day of the Locusts. [laughs] I had a great deal of fun with all of that but a lot of it was pared down to make the book read better and get the fable quality back.

CL: In terms of that fable quality, in one of your essays you mention retelling Christianity as William Blake did. You’ve retold Christianity as a fantasy story or even a science fiction story in some respects. What do you think the crucial difference is between a fantasy story and religious mythology and why do you find the fantasy aspect more interesting?

EK: Well, I find both interesting. There’s fantasy and theology and between them there’s the world of myth. So what I’m working with is Christianity, the Christian story, as mythology—which it is, of course, as well as being a belief system and a culture. None of my departures are outlandish departures because quite a lot of them are actually related to different versions of Christianity throughout the ages, whether it’s Gnosticism or the Cathars, who I’m very keen on.

So I wasn’t deciding one way or the other. I was just going to tell my story the way it worked for me. You have the reality of how this universe works according to Xas and Lucifer. But you have to remember that Xas can be mistaken and Lucifer can be mistaken and also lies. So the information you’ve got is only some of the information. And one of the main theological insights into what God’s plan might be is actually something that Flora thinks. She actually doesn’t know; she just understands something that Lucifer and Xas aren’t able to understand, because both of them are angry.

This is the middle book of three—The Vintner’s Luck, The Angel’s Cut, The Angel’s Reserve. By the end of the trilogy, you’ll be able to say, ‘Ah, this is what was happening—this was God’s plan for Xas.’ I guess the story of the whole thing is how much of what happens to him is free will and how much is his being moved one way or another for the purposes of the way God wants everything to turn out. Because God’s a character.

CL: We got a lot more of Lucifer in this story, so I’m wondering if God’s going to get more fleshed out and we’ll see more from His perspective.

EK: No, no. God doesn’t make an appearance any more than He does now. God makes His presence felt a couple of times in both books, or someone feels His presence.

CL: I noticed that in your retelling of the story, God appears to be male; there are no female angels and Xas falls in love with men. But at the same time there are several women in both books, like Aurora and Flora who are pivotal characters and who go through intensely physical, uniquely female experiences like pregnancy and breast cancer and who have scars that parallel Xas’s scars. They seem to have an understanding of Xas that other characters don’t have.

EK: I don’t think Aurora really understands him; it’s just that she’s a thinker. Sobran’s only intermittently a thinker—Sobran’s a creature of will, you know? He’s a very, very strong-minded man. He has things he wants out of life and he doesn’t think too hard about why he wants them, whatever they are. He wants to make great wines, he wants to have more money, he wants his family to be respected and successful. He wants Celeste, he wants Aurora, he wants Xas. He just goes at what he wants and nothing turns out the way he expects it to. Aurora thinks about things, so she comes up with a few more ideas about Xas once she has the opportunity to look at him. And she doesn’t consider him hers whereas Sobran does—he’s his.

Obviously Sobran’s the great love of Xas’s life but it’s arguable that Xas actually loves Flora more than he loves anyone. He lives with her constantly for ten years and she’s his friend, someone he feels protective and tender towards. And she’s very, very formative to his understanding of the world.

CL: Do you think that women play a particular role apart from men?

EK: No. I’m a person who believes strongly that the differences between individuals are much bigger than the differences between any group of people. It’s not about what race or gender you are; these things are very important but actually it’s the differences between individuals that’s the thing. People are different. And my angel’s a person. He’s just a person for whom the rules are different so that I can imagine human life from the outside.

CL: When Xas was with Sobran, it was a mutually loving relationship. With Cole…

EK: He makes the wrong choice. He’s just as subject to that as human beings are. He makes a wrong choice and wilfully continues to try to make it work. He wants to save him, and it basically breaks his heart. But he gets himself into that. He’s a person in a bad relationship. And he’s never sure whether he does love the man or not. He doesn’t know what he feels, he never gets the chance to really find his feet with that.

CL: It’s so one-sided with Cole. It almost seems that the sexual relationship brings out the worst in him—his obsessions and his phobias. I was wondering if Xas’s sexuality gives him added insight that other angels don’t have in terms of the best of people and the worst of people, and that’s why he’s so fascinated by them.

EK: Well, if it’s true that Xas is the only one who has sexuality because he’s the only one equipped to have any—because you have to remember that the person who supplies this information is famous for lying, and has reason to be doing so—then yes, that’s true. He’s certainly the sexual angel. But he’s also the one who’s exiled on Earth, the one who doesn’t have his wings, the one who’s spent all that time with people. So every single thing distinguishes him. He’s different from the start, he was made different.

CL: Because Xas loses his wings and lives on land he gains an understanding of how people experience time and how we experience the world and relationships. When humanity started flying did our perceptions of these things change at all?

EK: I think time changes every time it’s possible to talk to people far away and to see them quickly. Our sense of distance is very, very different from when we had to cross it by walking, or horses walking or sailing ships or so on. You get Xas’s friend Apharah in The Angel’s Cut saying [reads from the book] “After that she seemed to set out to find some way to have Xas experience time as people do. She said to him: ‘It might be good for you to pace out a human life. But—’ she said, ‘that is a poor analogy for someone who hasn’t ever had to measure a stretch of ground by walking across it.’” So you get it quite specifically, the relationship between time and distance.

CL: The last of your books that I read before this one was Dreamquake, and in both books you’ve described perfect happiness or contentment as being dangerous, even sinister. Is that a theme of yours?

EK: Oh, god, clever you! [laughs] Oh dear! Not consciously, no. But yeah, Heaven, the whole “blissed out” thing…

CL: In both cases, the characters who achieve this kind of happiness lose a part of themselves or lose control of themselves. It’s interesting.

EK: Yeah, it is interesting. But I don’t think I can have any remark upon that, because I really hadn’t considered that that was going on. I’m going to have to wonder about it now.

CL: Lucifer obviously has a much more prominent role in the book. Has your understanding of his character changed since you wrote The Vintner’s Luck?

EK: It was Lucifer who made me want to write another book. At the end of The Vintner’s Luck, in the manuscript I wrote notes about a sequel. Lots of the notes are about what’s going on with Lucifer—what was going to happen to him, and how what happened to Xas would affect him.

When you write about people, characters, you discover their motivation as you go along. So Lucifer is still evolving but more to the point Lucifer is changing despite himself. He’s very set in his position. When he tells the story of why he cut off Xas’s wings he’s telling the truth. But he really damages himself by doing that because he really feels bad about it. And that’s so against everything that he believes and thinks, that he’s actually arguing against his own life. Lucifer is heading down a dangerous path.

CL: I felt bad for him at the end.

EK: [laughs] Yeah, you’re meant to feel bad for him!

CL: The world is kind of passing him by. Xas is able to adapt to time and he isn’t.

EK: Lucifer is more and more a prisoner, in Hell all the time. Poor Lucifer.

CL: Where does the story go from here?

EK: Originally, The Angel’s Cut had 30,000 more words in it, which carried it up to 1959. Then me and my editor decided that this was part of the next book as a flashback. The Angel’s Reserve will be contemporary set more or less at the time I write it. I’ve had a revelation about the ending. The book will be moving in a certain direction, but it will take a sudden turn at the end—something tragic and sad and scary, but also, I hope, beautiful and transcendent. I plan to start writing it in about three years. I have to do some growing between each book because of the nature of what they’re about: human life. I’ve got to get a bit older.

CL: I wanted to ask you about Niki Caro’s film of The Vintner’s Luck.

EK: Right. I haven’t seen it yet.

CL: I’ve seen the trailer and it looks gorgeous. But I’m a bit anxious about whether they’ve changed anything important and whether they had a good reason to do it.

EK: Yes, they’ve changed some important things, and they had good reasons for doing it. Any glories and improvements are Niki’s and any mistakes are Niki’s. I’ve left it entirely up to her. What are your…?

CL: It’s just that the characters in your books are so well-developed and you get to know them so well, and it always makes me slightly nervous when filmmakers take such a character and change it.

EK: That’s just films and books. That goes with the territory.

CL: Do you think your writing style translates well into film or has the potential to?

EK: Well, I thought Vintner wasn’t filmable, but Niki’s filmed it, so I was wrong. I think that Dreamhunter and Dreamquake would make an absolutely stunning miniseries, like six episodes. It would be great! Two movies or one miniseries—because they’re about film, really.

CL: So The Vintner’s Luck has already been successful, and if the film catches on, I think it could contribute to New Zealand’s strong reputation for fantasy stories—you know, thanks to Peter Jackson…

EK: And Margaret Mahy!

CL: Right. Do you think there’s something about living in New Zealand that gives Kiwi storytellers a knack for fantasy?

EK: Yes, I do. I cannot quantify it but I do believe that’s true. Ellie Catton of The Rehearsal, her next young adult book is the first in a YA fantasy series and I’ve been very privileged to read half of it. My god, she’s going to be so big in the fantasy market. It’s so good. And it’s the same sort of confidence that Margaret seemed to have, of taking a believable domestic situation, a strongly realised world, and creating this mythic thing above it.

CL: I wonder if a sense of the unknown comes into it as well. You never tie things up neatly at the end—you leave a lot of questions unanswered.

EK: Yes, I’ve noticed that some people hate having things left unexplained. But I like leaving it open—that’s what makes it fun! Give only possibilities and clues, and then you have the fun of working through it on your own.

CL: For me your books are the kind that I carry around in the back of my head for a long time after I read them, and weeks later another thing will occur to me.

EK: That’s what it’s like when I’m writing them. I’ll be going along and then I’ll suddenly think, ‘Oh! I see!’

CL: Sounds like a lot of fun.

EK: Yes, it is a lot of fun.