I am delighted that so many writers have thoughts on writing and place that they want to share with me. Writer and blogger Rachel Fenton blogs at Snow Like Thought. Here are Rachel's answers to my questionnaire:
TH: Where are you?
RF: I'm sitting in my bedroom, with the curtains drawn (all white but for a chest of antique drawers, a bookcase, a 1960s school desk and two of my paintings), in a cedar house in a suburb of Auckland's North Shore, ten minutes from the beach and five from a little piece of bush. I am in my own gallery installation: art in a white box.
TH: How long have you been there?
RF: I left the UK in the summer of 2007, arriving into an Auckland winter with one bag of clothes and a realisation that our shipment of belongings was heading for the wrong place – we were meant to move to Wellington but I got cold feet and the one move we had done felt suddenly enough. I have lived in this house for two years exactly.
TH: What do you write?
RF: I write novels and short fiction mostly but I also write poetry (and I paint – painting and writing go very much together for me). I write about women and the ordinary or often overlooked “others”. I am fond of an underdog. I am attracted to tragedy and the potential for depicting tragic scenes in an aesthetically beautiful way.
TH: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?
RF: As someone who has always felt like an outsider, out of the loop in many ways, I am fascinated by “otherness”. This used to manifest itself primarily in my writing with a preoccupation with women as marginalised others but now I write about wider concerns as well. Since I came to New Zealand I have been feeling very English, which is both understandable and perplexing, insomuch as I never felt very at home in the UK. I am from a small Yorkshire mining town which lost its identity some years ago and for a while it felt as if this fading, bleaching out of heritage if you like, was happening in reverse, to the residents of the town – me included – that we were losing any ability to forge a positive identity or carve a future prospect, if that makes any sense? I was not accepted within my “home” town because I didn't have the right accent and hung around the periphery: a shy observer misinterpreted as aloof and standoffish perhaps, in any case I wanted to leave. Similarly, I felt class distinctions and a growing “Daily Mail” mindset was making other parts of the UK less attractive as potential homes. Essentially I wanted to be an observer of the UK rather than a participant. This comes across in much of my longer fiction: my characters are often leaving or returning to places of significance or alienation. I think I have an empathy for the displaced and what I like to call the “misplaced”, those who, for whatever reason, are not at home in the place society most expects them to belong. I have had an interest in post-colonial writing for some time now and coming to live in New Zealand has really brought this to the surface as far as my own writing is concerned. I have real trouble with the prefix “post”, I do not think we are “post”-colonial: post suggests we are past it, that we have moved beyond colonialism.
I recently travelled to a remote town in South Island to research for my current novel in progress and was really struck by a comment one local made, with regards to other locals not wanting to chat to me for my research, that if I had said I was from Yorkshire, not Auckland, they would have been more keen to speak to me. Am I now an Aucklander?
In Auckland I was called a “white whore”. Where is this place?
There is more than one breed of kiwi: I am discovering there are many New Zealands.
Since moving here I have stopped working to write full time but have also had a second child. My writing work habits are very much dictated by my children (my daughter is eight and my son is fourteen months). Through the week, I write when my daughter is at school and my son is napping, and in the evenings. At weekends I write for up to twelve hours a day. I have adapted to make the most of these hours and circumstances. We spend more time outdoors in the winter in New Zealand than we did in the UK and my fiction does seem to have decamped from the domestic to the great outdoors, too. I carry a notebook with me at all times and scribble down stray ends of conversations or anything which takes my fancy – I take lots of photographs, too. I am in a peculiar position of feeling familiar with my surroundings – able to write about them with knowledge – yet feeling, still, very liminal and noticing things anew. It is, for me, a very useful tool, to be both objective and caring, for a writer – and a human. Most crucially, I have discovered that “home”, for me, is an abstract: I carry it with me, within me. New Zealand, geographically, is very different from the UK. New Zealand (the parts I have experienced) on balance with the UK, is not so different. The real revelation for me is that I could live anywhere, but I don't need to. What I am discovering is that difference – real difference – is rare.
Thank you so much, Rachel, for sharing your thoughts on writing and place with us - it's fascinating for me to hear from another expat writer discussing what and who they are and where they are. Read Rachel's excellent blog, Snow Like Thought.
As always, anyone who wants to contribute a guest blog post, drop me an email!