Pip Adam (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Pip Adam (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksJuly 29, 2023

‘Hopeful, but not in a rose-tinted way’: an interview with Pip Adam

Pip Adam (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Pip Adam (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

Pip Adam’s latest novel is the story of a spaceship called Audition which carries three giants Alba, Stanley and Drew through space. If the giants talk, the spaceship keeps moving; if they are silent, they resume growing. The novel is described as ‘uncategorisable’ and as part science fiction, part social commentary. Theatre maker and writer Jo Randerson spoke with Pip about the ideas behind the book.

“…right at that very last moment he tried to count it, count all the power he had in him. All the power in his arms. His bigness. The way they were all so much bigger than any of the people that pushed them around, tried to hold onto that last minute where he remembered that all he had to do was turn around and say, Let’s not do this.” (Audition, p.88)

Jo Randerson: Pip, I absolutely loved Audition. It held me in its arms from the cover onwards, through every single sentence. As someone who has long-admired the bold trajectories of your narrative journeys, my first question is about structure. In your work (I’m thinking of New Animals here as well) I sometimes get a physical thrill as a reader when a big shift happens, I’m like … what? You just did that! Do you map out structure in advance – do you make drawings of the meta arc of the narrative? Or does the story create its own structure?

Pip Adam: So, the more I write the more I realise that most of what I know about structures of fiction comes from hairdressing. I think about novels and stories as three-dimensional, each of its parts interdependent on the other like a haircut. Now that doesn’t mean they all need to connect if you think of a mullet for instance, the disconnection between the short front and the long back is what makes the mullet a mullet. I feel like every story needs a new way of telling and I think an integral part of the ‘story’ is in the structure the way the bits sit together is part of the story. Each book requires a different approach what I already know won’t help me so I need to learn again. 

For Audition I was lucky enough to have a room to work in (that is another thing that is always part of the story for me, the resources I have in the real world) and in the room there was a whiteboard and I mapped the story out using Post-it notes: I also used small objects on a table. I love moving things around, that’s what I love so much about hairdressing: the hand/brain coordination. So, I was physically moving objects around to make story shapes. But I wait to do this planning: my first draft is always just me telling myself the story. I approach it each day as an observer, or a host; I approach the haunting that is a story.

During the first draft I start to see patterns and also questions develop. This is the hardest part not letting the maps and questions take over. There’s this incredibly seductive pull of the conventional narrative. Three acts is the sexiest thing for me, it appeals so much to my desire for control (which is an extension of my all-sucking need to be loved) but the story isn’t about me or my needs or comfort – the story has its own needs. It comes from another place and doesn’t belong to me and I need to do its work not mine. 

My next question is about stickiness. Sometimes I feel this goopy, melted quality in your writing, like I’m wading through syrup except wading implies there’s a direction when sometimes I’m not sure which way I’m going. I love this feeling – as a reader I have to surrender my judgemental brain and let the words wash over me, knowing that the plot is not the single most important entity, but equally the story comes through the rhythm and cadence of the words and their emotional tone (more like poetry). This philosophical stance of surrender helps me in my own life plot, to let go of where I am and what I am doing, and just be in the present. As a reader in Audition, l feel asked to be a companion to the story, to be alongside and observe, not to judge but to be present in the stickiness… do you relate to this? 

Yeah. I really relate to this and I don’t fully know what it’s about in my writing. I wonder if it comes down to the innate confusion I have with the world. I often feel like I am communicating through that stickiness. I think, “OK. The stickiness that’s how we do things.” But recently I’m realising that maybe stickiness is not how we do things. I think that some of that stickiness comes from my misunderstanding of how we communicate as a species. It’s like when you laugh but it wasn’t a joke. The stickiness for me is also about a generalised and quite deep confusion I’m making it sound negative and it definitely makes me feel isolated sometimes but also I think confusion offers a lot of possibilities.

I remember saying to you once I didn’t feel sure about something and you said, Doubt can be helpful. I think confusion is doubt in action and it goes back to thinking of narrative as multi-dimensional that it has the freedom to go in lots of directions. Maybe the information we need is in another room! Maybe we don’t get to see that part! Also, I think often I am telling things in different ways, like that thing where tastes feel a certain way, or numbers have personalities? It’s often like that. I think that stickiness is a bug rather than a feature and I’m OK with that because maybe there is a weird dream logic to it that might make sense in a completely different way to the one I intended. 

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

I found such great resolution in your book, it felt so fresh and new – like we arrived at a landing pad of safety and this really moved me! I was (selfishly) excited for myself as a reader, excited for others as readers, and also excited for you as a writer! The story moved in directions I did not expect, and without giving too much away, I felt a great sense of liberation reading this, is it too un-New Zealand to say triumph even? 

Aw, thanks I’m really interested in queer joy. My sexuality was largely formed in a time of great sadness and fear. One of the things I remember most strongly from my teenage years is the Aids epidemic and the health classes we had at school which were terrifying. So much of the joy of sex and of identity were washed out of those decades for a generation of people maybe more than a generation. And I think a lot of my life since especially my sex life and how I integrate that part of me into my life and work has been about balancing the absolute devastation of the violence toward queer people and the absolute euphoria that can come from sex and queerness.

I feel really excited that art is finding ways to hold the violence and the joy, I love that joy is becoming a form of activism. I recently went to a Wellington rally for trans rights and at the same time as talking about really unacceptable, soul-destroying things there was this palpable sense of joy I loved that. I think also about the work of Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg and Joy Holley and Always Becoming and Kerry Donovan Brown and Emma Barnes and Rebecca Hawkes and Etta Bollinger and so many others: I have so much respect and love for this work. Through it I can find myself and reclaim some of the parts of me that I’ve hidden. I love that it’s possible to have such amazing company. 

That’s so beautiful to hear about the joy! Your writing has that too, the blend of suppression (violence) and finding a way out (joy), out and through. It reminds me of George Saunders, when his writing heroises everyday normal humans making small choices which represent an important emotional or psychological shift, like owning our sense of pride. It’s very empowering, but also it doesn’t deny the intense pressure on our souls from neoliberal capitalist culture. Hopeful, but not in a rose-tinted way. I think of your writing as political, in a very human way. Do you think of your writing as political? 

I think I have a responsibility that comes with the privilege of writing and publishing books: the nature of that responsibility is necessarily political. I don’t want to be mistaken for saying that I think what I write has political power: I still need to be politically active in other ways I don’t think my writing work changes much in the world. What I’m saying is I approach writing as a political act not activism perhaps but in all the jobs I do, I’m thinking, “How can I make things better through this work?” 

Because I’m an anarchist and I hold very little stock in our present political structures, the word “political” is really hard to reconcile with what I think I’m doing. Innate in my anarchist view is hope – hope for a different way, or perhaps I mean possibility. Invisible possibilities, that’s what I think my writing might be able to do, explore alternatives that seem impossible in the day-to-day suffering of living. A lot of what I believe in politically seems impossible, but when I write, I am able to create places where there is possibility. 

I want to acknowledge how much you lift others up, how much you shout out to the activist community, fellow writers and other environments of inspiration like hairdressing: you’re very conscious of your community and very generous. I especially appreciated your explanation in the book about where you’re coming from as a writer, it was beautiful to read that. Last question, you called writing “a haunting” above, have you got something haunting you next? 

Crikey, do I have a story for you. So, last year, I started writing this book that was very appealing to me it felt cool, it made me feel like a cool writer, “I’m so fucking edgy,” I would think to myself. “This is like The Boys,” I would think. “This is like Watchmen. Wait, am I the new Alan Moore of my generation?’ Bahaha. And then a month ago, we started getting these phishing emails at work. My workmates started getting emails “from” me asking for money and they started replying and it ended up a whole big thing which got inside me and now – it appears I am writing a different book, a very uncool book that will probably be about some things that I have done everything to avoid in my writing. This is why I think I need to be working while I write: if I hadn’t been at work (paying-my-bills work), I would still be writing the very cool book which was, to be honest, like pushing shit uphill. 

I won’t start on the work/art impossible balance but because I’ve been working since I was 15, I’m not sure I would know myself without that work, or if I would have anything to write about. I don’t know who said this but I often think of that quote, “You can choose what you write but you can’t choose what you make live.” 

“They dream of land things. Of the land above them … No matter where the dreams come from, they come and come and have the strange time effect that dreams can have … And there’s nothing to do but to float and wait. It’s a strange feeling to know they will never have to explain this to any of their kind.” (Audition p. 198)

Audition by Pip Adam (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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