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Bill Nelson (left) and Lawrence Patchett (right) (Image: Archi Banal)
Bill Nelson (left) and Lawrence Patchett (right) (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 1, 2023

Make it strange: an interview with Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson (left) and Lawrence Patchett (right) (Image: Archi Banal)
Bill Nelson (left) and Lawrence Patchett (right) (Image: Archi Banal)

Lawrence Patchett talks to Bill Nelson about Root, Leaf, Flower, Fruit, a verse novel that Nelson has just released with Te Herenga Waka University Press.

Bill Nelson demonstrated his versatility with his first book, Memorandum of Understanding. A book of surprising range and humour, it included a love poem styled as a public sector memo and another called ‘How to change the oil in a 1979 Ford Escort’. Now the new book from the Biggs Poetry Prizewinner combines the techniques of fiction and poetry to explore the scrambling experience of brain injury and recovery. Funny and destabilising, Root, Leaf, Flower, Fruit is a haunting insight into the “pattern of a damaged brain slowly healing”.

Lawrence Patchett: Several authors from Aotearoa and elsewhere have recently released books that, like yours, occupy a space somewhere between poetry and the novel. Do you have any theories on why this might be happening?

Bill Nelson: Yes, I know Ruby Solly has published a verse novel this year and I’ve heard Louise Wallace has one in the works. I think Iris and Me by Philippa Werry is a YA verse novel and Joan Fleming’s Song of Less came out last year. I had no idea there were other people in New Zealand working on verse novels when I wrote the book, so it was a nice surprise to find it has some friends to hang out with. All I can talk about though is how my book came about, and for me it was a necessary challenge, a way to surprise myself while I was writing. That’s always the driving force for everything I do. Make it strange, make it weird, make it feel like it was written by someone else.

And I suppose I had a story to tell that had been brewing for a while. One about recovering from trauma but finding that you can’t trust yourself any more. And how do you recover from that? I’d tried to write more regular lyric poems around that subject for a few years, which were fine, but they didn’t quite seem to get to the core of it. So that’s why the longer thing, the verse novel, came about. ‘”Just keep going”, I told myself, “until you get to a hundred pages. Then you can stop and get back to the real work.” Who was it who said, “The real work happens while you’re warming up”? Or something like that. Maybe it’s a sports quote, I don’t know. I’m sure someone said it.

In your acknowledgements you give a shout-out to Robin Robertson and his “radical novel” The Long Take. Not unlike your book, Robertson’s novel shows an interest in the shattered mind, following a veteran who carries his war trauma into a new life in New York City and beyond. Is there something particular about the form that matches well to the injured mind?

Oh man, I love that book. It was actually the form that got me going initially. It looked and felt like poetry but it had such a clear narrative, a real page turner. Which got me thinking that I could do that too. And Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is a novel written in a single sentence which made it feel like poetry to me. And also Pip Adam’s book The New Animals has that incredible scene at the end when the main character wades into the Hauraki Gulf and slowly turns into a mermaid (or does she?). That was like some kind of narrative poetry too. All these books provided sparks of excitement at different points in the writing process. But, yeah, because I was reading The Long Take at the beginning of this book and the subject matter I wanted to write about was similar trauma and healing then it’s inevitable that there would be some similarities.

But in general I think poetry often tries to get inside patterns of thought. Especially disjunctive poetry that leaps between things, seemingly randomly, but in a way that somehow seems so right. I love poetry like that, and I wanted that to be part of this book. To reflect the pattern of the brain in the writing. The pattern of a damaged brain slowly healing. But as well I wanted a banger of a narrative that you can’t put down. I do like a challenge.

It’s definitely a gripping story. There’s that shocking bike accident at the start, and the characters keep on tumbling into moments of danger and tension. But I was surprised by how much irony and humour there is too – some really funny moments unfold on the farm, and the grandma seems to enjoy making her swearing as spicy as possible. Did that use of humour help you to get inside the characters? 

I definitely enjoy making things as spicy as possible too. I think when I decided to send the main character, a suburbanite academic, back to his grandparents’ organic farm to tidy it up for sale, part of that was to put him in some ridiculous situations and get him to do some stupid stuff. 

And my own grandmother had a similar stroke to the grandmother character in the book. She started swearing a lot and spitting abuse at people. I remember one time at a dinner at my aunty’s house, my grandfather was trying to spoon-feed her some peas and she looked at him and released a storm of swear words that you’d never expect to hear from a person of the World War Two generation. The whole table burst out laughing on that occasion, but it was hard to tell if she was actually angry or if she had developed a really dry sense of humour. I guess I always preferred to think that she was doing it to mess with people.

She has a similar unknowability in the book, for a start, but then you enter her perspective, and large parts of the novel are narrated from her point of view. I noticed that you use really different rhythms – like much longer sentences and fully justified lines – to give us the sound of her mind. Then those rhythms break down as she has one of her strokes. The male character, by contrast, has short sentences and lots of line breaks, especially straight after his head injury. Did  you use those techniques to give us the sense of how the sound of someone’s mind can change? 

Yes. That was something I thought about a lot. How the form of the writing can enhance or limit our connection with the character. I didn’t want to spend too much time explaining who was talking when, or whether they felt confused or alert or whatever. I just wanted to show that through the writing and the form. That’s something poets do naturally, I think. 

I tried a lot of different techniques and structures before I settled on the forms that I did. At one point I had all the sections printed out and cut up into little squares that I rearranged on the floor of my office. Putting it all on the floor was a good way to keep a perspective on how it worked as a whole thing, and also I could zoom in on one particular page and see how that was working. 

It created a whole lot of continuity issues later on that my editor luckily picked up. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing it that way. But it was fun and felt like a good way for a poet to put a novel together.

But time is still really interesting in the novel – it’s circular at the beginning, and stuff happens out of sequence near the end. I love that scene where the guy’s partner fixes a wristwatch at the kitchen table, as if she’s trying to make life move in a straightforward and linear way again. 

Having had a small brain injury myself it felt like time did operate differently. Initially it was very circular. I had short term memory loss for about 24 hours and every 15 minutes or so I’d forget everything that had just happened. As I was coming out of that, I remember making little connections to link my memories back together again, like a look from my partner as she had to listen to me say the same thing she’d heard over and over, or the movement of the curtain around my hospital bed as the nurse was attending the patient next door. 

I like the idea that we can connect things with time, like in a narrative for example, but there are other ways to connect things, like emotionally or metaphorically or sensually. And when you start focussing on those kind of connections at the expense of a linear story, that’s when a novel starts to lurch towards poetry I think.

That search for a pattern and for continuity occurs inside the book too, as the grandmother learns the rhythms of biodynamic farming, and her grandson reads her diaries to make sense of her life there. I love the way that work on the land is important to recovery for both characters, but is never romanticised. The main guy remembers the farm as a place of boredom and dirt and bad smells, and for his grandma it brings wholeness but also heaps of grinding work. Then there’s the farm worker who breaks down and rolls naked in the dirt. It seems to be another irony of this book, which is interested in earthly rhythms – the movement from root to leaf to flower to fruit – but knows that country living can also be demanding in unexpected ways.  

For the two main characters, the various landscapes in the book play an important role. And the farm is the one place that is common to both of them so it’s especially important. They both meet some difficulties there so it was never going to be a romantic place, and I wanted it to feel emotionally true for both of them and where they were in their lives. For another character it may well have felt different.

I studied geography at university and there is a branch of that called “psychogeography”, which is about the effects of landscape and place on people’s emotions and behaviours. I’ve always been interested in that and often end up playing around with it in my work. And besides that, it was fun to put the characters in an uncomfortable location, somewhere they didn’t understand, and then sit back and see what would happen next.

Root, Leaf, Flower Fruit by Bill Nelson (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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