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BooksDecember 21, 2023

What led me to Ruin: Emma Hislop on what inspired her debut short story collection


Emma Hislop reflects on the decade it took to finish the stories that make up her debut collection, Ruin, and the many books, relationships and people that helped her along the way.

I was thirteen when I first fell in love with short stories. We’d moved from the Far North to Taranaki and I’d been hospitalised for anxiety that summer. The doctor used a whiteboard to explain what had happened with the panic attack, before sending us home. My new school was huge and composed of concrete blocks named A Block, B Block, S Block. There was a uniform and all the girls shaved their legs and seemed very sophisticated. 

The classes were organised in streams under the words FEAST and GLORY. Nobody said it outright but F and G were the brainy kids. I was in 3O, so deemed average by whoever decided such things. My English teacher was the late Diane Kawana. She was strict and she read the class stories by Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. Something about the form appealed, they seemed like something I wanted to try. Alice Munro describes a story as “a world seen in a quick glancing light” but I like how they can also throw things into shadow. The people in Ihimaera and Grace’s stories were sometimes isolated and overwhelmed but the stories were really about connection and place. 

I whakapapa to Kāi Tahu at Puketeraki, but as a kid, Pukenui had felt like home. Ms Kawana would hand our stories back, with detailed feedback scrawled at the bottom about what she loved, and how the language was interesting, or suggestions for ways to expand the story or interrogate things more deeply. Sometimes she would ask a question. In the sixth form, I was awarded Janet Frame’s autobiography for an English prize and an obsession with Frame’s work ensued. My parents had Keri Hulme’s collection Te Kaihau, and I stole that, along with the bone people. 

My oldest friend, Chloe, messaged me after my book, Ruin, came out in March this year. She said “Em! I am tiptoeing thru it.” She reads to relax, and she said my book wasn’t a relaxing read. In Ruin, the violence largely happens off the page but I wanted definite glimpses of it, in details and implication. I loved this idea, the notion that my work might move the reader in some way, even unsettle them. But it made me question if I’d written a violent book. The idea Chloe raised, of reading as refuge, was something I’ve thought a lot about since. Why do people read? I had begun to think my nine-year-old son might not read, but earlier this year he discovered a series which shall remain nameless. He is so fascinated by the story world, he now reads after school of his own volition, as well as before bed.

The debut short story collection from Emma Hislop (Image: Archi Banal)

I returned home in 2006 after a decade in South London unable to cope with my life as it was. Partying had literally been in my job description in London, but not the thrilling or glamorous kind. I got some work in Wellington and started writing. In 2012, I was rejected for the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). The following year, two close friends encouraged me to apply again. This seems an obvious suggestion now, but at the time I needed a hard push. I was yet to learn that rejection comes with the writing territory. If you don’t get in, try again. This time, I got in and began writing the stories, in a house beside Te Awakairangi in the Hutt, that would become Ruin.

People say “write what you know”. But I reckon the exciting bit is the permission to write about all the things you don’t actually know. My fiction always shares a glimmer of truth with my experience but I’m writing on the other side of that, using that glimmer to get to a place of uncertainty and fear and ambiguity because that’s where all the better writing is, on the other side of all that. It’s only when I get into the place of unknowing I think I’m in the right place. When everything’s about to collapse because you don’t know what you’re doing – that’s where I want to be. 

Everyone in the IIML class seemed so well read. I was introduced to Chekhov, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Kamila Shamsie, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, John Cheever. An unhealthy obsession with Carver and his short sentences began. Janice Galloway and Mary Ruefle came to talk to us from overseas, and I was hugely inspired by Galloway’s short fiction, which is domestic and dark. The plain language and the menace in Galloway’s Collected Stories and her novel The Trick Is To Keep Breathing became a kind of starting point for Ruin. Ruefle’s erasure poetry blew my mind. 

I still remember reading Johnson’s Emergency, glued to my seat in the library, amazed at its persuasion. Similarly with Cheever’s The Swimmer. I knew about Pip Adam, because Everything We Hoped For came out in 2010 and the close point of view was something I’m still trying to achieve in my work. The close lens, those sentences that hold such emotional force. I was familiar with Hulme and Mansfield, but re-reading The Doll’s House in class moved me. A lamp appeared at the end of my story, Housewarming, in a final revision in 2022 and felt like a nod to that little lamp. Those early stories by Grace and Ihimaera stayed with me, too. 

Ruin would take another decade, slow in the making. One criticism of my early work from my classmates was that the voice was too passive. My rage was buried deep. The ability to realise what had been given and received through the work we did in the work we had undertaken together in class was similarly slow in revealing itself. While the stories changed significantly over the decade it took me to write them, the glimmer of truth always stayed the same.

When I was 23, I lived on the edge of Oxford Meadow in the UK in a house truck with my then boyfriend. It was the 90s and the criminal justice bill meant that there was a crack down on free camping and raves. The meadow is a flat saturated landscape, swampy and desolate in winter and dotted with wild horses and walkers in the summer, a canal on one side and a row of pubs and houses on the other. 

I was reminded of this place when I read Fen, Daisy Johnson’s debut collection of short stories. The landscape in Fen feels impermanent and the characters sometimes shift with it, one turning into an eel and returning to the fens, another becoming a house. The language is matter-of-fact and restrained but Daisy Johnson’s humans and animals become unreliable, and in that way suit the landscape’s moving perimeters and puddles of water. Johnson’s Fen evoked the Oxford meadow and the anxiety associated with living on it,  the feeling of being on borrowed time. We never knew when the council would come and move us on. Johnson’s protagonists are women and lead the narrative, which is something I tried to do in my book, with any men feeling peripheral and less important. 

Irish writer Louise Kennedy writes relationships cleverly, they way can look like one thing, but be another. There’s a story in Kennedy’s debut collection called Imbolc. Every time I read this story, I feel the tension. It’s in the back and forth from the shed to the house, in those two confined spaces, the way the mother is tending to the baby and the stress that comes with this, in the dialogue. The characters in Kennedy’s work are flawed and complicated, but the characters are written with huge empathy. Like Aotearoa’s history, Irish history is fraught and perhaps a reason I’m drawn to Irish writers. To name a few, Kevin Barry, Wendy Erskine, Jan Carson, Colin Barrett, Nuala O’Connor, Noelle McCarthy. We can’t get away from how history has shaped us. Characters are often trapped by their circumstances finance, health, place either connected to their environment, or often disconnected. 

Some of the books and writers that nurtured Emma Hislop over a decade of writing her short story collection, Ruin.

I first found out about Anthony Veasna So in an Electric literature interview in 2019, and bought their book, Afterparties, when it was published in 2021. It was towards the end of writing Ruin, and by this time So was dead. He died sadly of a drug overdose in 2020, just 10 months after selling Afterparties and an unfinished novel. His collection made me think about the ways in which our histories are often hidden and how hard it is to pull yourself out of historical trauma. The stories are set in California, and while many of the characters have lived nowhere else, the Khmer Rouge genocide casts a shadow. So used this to convey how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation, but also at other times for darkly comedic effect. The book is very funny in parts about terrible things that have happened to his people, almost reflexively. I loved the large cast of characters too. He tells stories about a full range of experiences by Cambodian Americans and this was something I was thinking about for the Māori characters in Ruin. Writers like So and Kennedy, remind me, and the reader, that family histories, our childhoods, leave impressions that often force individualised responses. 

Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties was one I carried around with me during the last couple of years writing Ruin. Machado writes so intensely about the ways in which we inhabit our bodies, and about desire. The notion of someone wanting all of someone else. There is horror in that idea as well as urban legend and science fiction. Machado puts strong women characters in precarious situations that lead toward conflicts. These women are tricky and restless and they deal. 

Now I am lucky enough to have other writers as friends. I heard about Colleen Maria Lenihan and her writing before I met her at the Te Hā Hui Kaituhi in 2019. I accosted her in the car park on the first night and we stood in the wind, talking about writing and how long it took to write a book. Like me, Colleen spent many years living outside Aotearoa. In her book, Kōhine, we are shown the things left behind. The day Kōhine arrived in the post, I was getting ready to go to a friend’s place for dinner and decided to read one story before I went. Two hours later, I finished the book, with a sense of witnessing something extraordinary. Kōhine is a portrait of girls and women and work and the unreal territory of grief. Through Te Ao Māori, through metaphor, make-believe, through crows and language, and perhaps above all an astute understanding of human experience, it seems to ask what is it to stay? Or leave? What does it mean to belong? Or to feel that you don’t belong? 

Six years ago we moved back to Taranaki. My son was three and I was unwell and needed the help of my parents. I’d been to several GPs over the years, and they always gave me the same tests, and when they came back negative there was no support. I was told that it was probably just stress. During that time, I often felt that the symptoms must be in my head. It was a tough time. Then a doctor here diagnosed me correctly and after I had surgery on my neck I was cured. I began writing my book again under the view of  Mount Taranaki. I made some connections with other local, Māori writers. I finished writing Ruin. I sometimes think about the writer J.C. Sturm, (Taranaki Iwi, Parihaka and Whakātohea) born half an hour away, in Opunake, and wonder if she had writing mates. I heard a rumour that she and Janet Frame used to smoke ciggies together. Sturm had a collection of stories written by the mid-1960s, but the book House of the Talking Cat was not published until 1983.

A friend of mine, Talia, recently said we can’t be Māori by ourselves. It’s a relational thing and we give and receive it. That’s stayed with me. This book, Ruin, was made through collaborative effort, attempts and failures. Ruin is the product of numerous Tuakana-Teina relationships, united in the purpose of thinking and feeling through the writing problems I faced. 

I’m writing a novel now, but it’s as though short fiction makes up the shape of story in my unconscious mind. The characters started off like wooden dolls. I’m grateful to live in Taranaki, but to finish writing the novel, I’ll need to get back to Puketeraki. 

Ruin by Emma Hislop ($30, Te Herenga Waka University Press) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. Emma Hislop appears in Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2024, in the writers programme. 

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