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Emily Perkins and Pip Adam: Ockhams nominees (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Emily Perkins and Pip Adam: Ockhams nominees (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 14, 2024

‘I thought we could wear Zoolander outfits’: Pip Adam and Emily Perkins on the Ockhams

Emily Perkins and Pip Adam: Ockhams nominees (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Emily Perkins and Pip Adam: Ockhams nominees (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Audition by Pip Adam and Lioness by Emily Perkins are both shortlisted for the fiction award at the 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Here the authors discuss awards, writing, Selling Sunset, review culture, Zoolander and more.

Pip Adam: Whenever I think about writers and our ambitions, I can’t help thinking of You Hurt My Feelings.

Emily Perkins: I loved that film, because it really gets the little humiliations that are so silly but I think most writers feel them (this is me trying to get out of saying “I feel them” lol – which I do). And it’s about how much we want others to reflect us back in certain ways… and if you need a mirror that’s only ever shiny and flattering, then you’re not going to be grounded in reality for very long. I don’t think the character has any friends who are writers – does that make what she’s going through more acute?

Pip: She has her son who is also a writer. But that relationship is not helpful because she puts herself in the position of champion in a way that leaves no space for her to share her insecurity or envy. Thank God for other writers, eh? I love the reminder I almost always get from writers, you especially, that the work of writing is separate from the work of being read. It’s so important. The other day I could feel my anxiety physically – my body was humming with it. I was worrying about how everyone hated me – the anxiety island I visit most often. 

Publishing is a minefield for me which hijacks me in surprising ways everyday. I went for a walk with my dog and it slowed me enough so I could write and while I was writing none of the anxiety I had been having was there. There was anxiety, sure – but it was productive, I was worrying about how best to write the book. I get this reminded when I talk to writers or read books. I find it tough that a lot of the systems around writing are designed to make us compete against each other. I’m thinking of publishing itself, bestseller lists, competitive arts funding and competitions. They all seem to pit book against book. When what we thrive in is community.

What impresses me about writing communities in Aotearoa is the work they put into resisting the division a competitive model demands. I think the same is true for individual writers. I think we’ve talked before about how writers are portrayed in films and TV. It’s interesting because it hints at what society’s agreed stories about writers are. I’m interested in why the theme of jealousy keeps returning? But also, the idea of the envious artist is quite pervasive, eh? Maybe jealousy is just a good character trait for any character.

The New Zealand cover of audition; photo of Pip Adam by Rebecca McMillan; and the Australian cover of Audition.

Emily: This really chimes, about writing itself being the place where the other bullshit goes away. I wonder if the reason writers are often written as venal, thieving, cold, self-serving – all these lovely qualities – might be to do with self-hating writers (lol) and a kind of pandering to the idea that writing is stealing. Which is another topic for another day! Whereas many of the writers I know have the opposite of those traits. I feel my ability to write is utterly entwined with my connection with other writers. Proximity to a real-life writing community isn’t available to everyone, but this is also one area where I think the internet excels though it might be harder in that space to have the “off topic” exchanges that characterise so many conversations between writers. The support can be as simple as knowing other people who have the same work challenges it doesn’t have to be an in-depth discussion about adverbs. 

I agree about the competitive models, though I see publishers and editors as champions and enablers like all the people who work in different ways to produce and distribute books. It’s an incredible field because people enter it for the love of reading, that’s the secret engine. But somehow within capitalism there’s the appearance of scarcity, like there are only so many column inches or this much display table space or this much money. And that has psychological effects that you have to work to counter. I knew a poet in England who used to call National Poetry Day “National Jealousy Day”. 

I know we both relished the scene in Ripley where he is editing Marge’s manuscript in complete disgust – while also enjoying his own ability to make it better. My favourite shot is when he writes on the page “This is not a word”. I mean, that kind of thing is all over my own drafts: “Make this better”, in all caps. Like you’re saying, I think, a supportive community is valuable in part because the self-criticism is enough for any given day. 

Pip: I just about gave myself whiplash nodding so hard to your reply. I agree completely with all of it. Especially the idea of self-loathing writers writing fictional writers. And I wonder if that is what that scene in Ripley comes from? Because Steven Zaillian is a writer himself. I can’t remember that scene from the book but I think it is so good because so much of any con is the story and I always think there is such a correlation between the scammer and the writer. Suspension of disbelief at a whole new level. I feel like that scene hits home so hard for me as a writer. I have a friend that said something like, bad reviews are hard because the reviewer often recognises the thing we, ourselves, hate about our writing and think we have hidden. That’s me to a tee. I’ve had some bad reviews but the worst one said my book was “humourless”. I am someone who is always told to “lighten up” and at the same time I value a sense of humour really highly. I think that is the core insecurity about my work – that it’s so sincere. 

Emily: But you are one of the funniest people I know our exchanges bring me so much joy in the way of laughter. I would call your books too layered to be read as only sincere, but carrying the weight and power of what matters if that’s sincerity, then yes they are brimming with it.

And yes, being reviewed makes me laugh at myself so much, you wanted this Emily! So why are you making your husband vet everything before you read it? Could it be… like a scene from You Hurt My Feelings?? And obviously, in general it would be great to have more of a reviewing culture, not less. Last year someone asked me how I felt about the place of fiction in contemporary culture, and being someone who writes it, and they quoted that album/song title by The Beths: Expert in a Dying Field

Lioness by Emily Perkins (Image: Archi Banal)

Pip: It is so interesting/weird/synchronistic that you mention that song! It always makes me well up. It’s such a perfect break-up song and a wild worship of loss of all types. Thanks for saying those kind things about my writing. So much of who I am as a writer is because of you. You were my MA examiner and your feedback changed how I think about my work. I’ve been so grateful for your generosity as a friend and writer. I found Lioness so inspiring. We’ve talked a lot over the years about how to write wealth and Lioness feels groundbreaking in the way it portrays the rich. It’s such a clever, radical, wonderful book. So, a big part of what I think about the place of fiction is fired by our conversations – largely about reality television. I’m often talking with you about how jealous I am of the reality TV form. The rhythms of people performing in a state of acute awareness of being observed is endlessly interesting to me.

Reality TV has made me love fiction more because it shows me the potential of the construct. Queer fiction at the moment is also showing me how exciting the form can be. There is something so fucking inspiring about writers using an existing form and pushing it the point that it’s fundamentally altered and almost unrecognisable. Also, and it’s so obvious it feels stupid to say, the writing I’m most excited about in Aotearoa is coming from Tangata Whenua. A book like Tīhema Baker’s Turncoat, or Ruby Solly’s The Artist, these are leading us to what fiction can do. Part of what makes Land Back an important concept to me is the surrender of resources to enable even more narrative sovereignty. With this in mind, Nadine Hura’s latest newsletter So you want to publish a book is a must-read. I was wondering if we’re going to approach the elephant in the room. We’re both shortlisted for the Acorn – do you think the outcome of that could affect how we feel about competition? 

Emily: Firstly, yes 100 percent to reality TV and its capacity to show systems and psychology in a way I really understand fiction aspiring to. There’s something in the editing too, the way they play with narrative I’ve just been reading some Vulture recaps of the latest Drag Race and the recapper is all about structure, narrative arcs and the producers as storytellers hardly discussing the content. The really hooky reality shows play expertly with withholding and instilling longing, which is a technical approach I feel both deeply drawn to, and complicated about. Art that leaves you stirred up can be used to both productive and destructive ends! I wonder how this could relate to that Brechtian anti-catharsis idea, that art should not discharge our feelings but send us out into the street with them, demanding change rather than sending us back to the sofa and TV remote. I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent here, but I feel like your work engages and stirs on the level of “let’s do something”.

Also there are characters in reality TV, like Bri from Selling Sunset who we are both huge fans of, who could totally walk across the pages of a Victorian novel, Edith Wharton or Henry James or something even earlier like Jane Austen. I love what you say about form and realism refreshing our attempts at representation, refreshing our imaginative capacities – and at the same time I feel like there’s some glimmering magic at the core of the process of fiction that is timeless.

On the elephant in the room, this might sound trite but I’m just incredibly grateful to be in the room along with it, and with the rest of you. There were so many amazing books published here this past year and I’d encourage readers to dive into any of them. On the actual Ockhams night I thought we could wear Zoolander outfits and both leap up to collect the award no matter whose name is read out. What do you think?

Pip: I totally agree about the gratitude to be in the room. I spoke to romesh dissanayake (everyone – read his book!) recently and he said this amazing thing about the book being like a friend that you want to look after, advocate for and celebrate. I found this really helpful for the ego stuff. Like, I completely disappear. I’m the chaperone. And I bring all the other books that I’ve read as well – so it’s like this massive psychic party of books. I’m all for Zoolander but I also kind of like the idea of a Selling Sunset style bell ring on behalf of the winner. As you can imagine I would quite like to be “lavender Balenciaga two-piece knit set” era Christine Quinn (with pigtails please) but I would probably end up being Mary Fitzgerald in her confused managerial phase. But yeah, DING DONG!

Emily: A much better idea! I’ll raid Amanza’s wardrobe. Ding dong for books!

Audition by Pip Adam ($35, Te Herenga Waka University Press) is available to purchase from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Lioness by Emily Perkins ($37, Bloomsbury) is available to purchase form Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

The 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards ceremony is 15 May, as part of Auckland Writers Festival. Tickets and info online here

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