Novelist, short-story and script writer, Emily Perkins has spent almost 30 years exploring the world around her and what it means to be a woman in it. Opening next weekend in Auckland, her play The Made makes use of robots (and some fungi) to tackle these themes.
Back in the mid-90s when I was mooching around Wellington having half-arsed relationships in rickety flats while doing a bad job of being a waitress, I read a book of short stories called Not Her Real Name by a 26-year-old called Emily Perkins.
It amazed me that someone around my age in my city with a life resembling mine had taken those shabby materials and knitted them together to make something good. Something that everyone was raving about. Emily Perkins became an It girl before New Zealand had It girls, the voice of the nebulous slacker generation that no one knew how to define back then (and never would).
Next thing Perkins was living in London, writing novels and newspaper columns for the Independent. She later returned to New Zealand where she’s remained a household name (in a certain kind of household) since that first book of stories, partly because she continues to knock out well-received novels, and partly because, with her hyper-alert elfin vibe, she offers a more compelling 3D presence than writers sometimes do; she was a teenage actress, studied drama before switching to writing and, in later years, hosted bookish shows on TV. Profiles invariably mention that she’s married to the painter Karl Maughan who, in a strange way is her art-world equivalent, both of them pulling off the rare feat of appealing to critics and punters alike.
Another thing I remember reading in a long-ago profile of Perkins was that she believed everyone had a sort of enduring internal age, separate to their actual chronological age, and that hers was 24. And so, when Perkins, now 52, breaks from rehearsals at the Auckland Theatre Company to pick up her phone and talk about her new play The Made, I remind her of that comment. Does she still feel 24?
She laughs. “I think [age] is more of an abstract concept to me now. I might think about being in touch with a version of my life before children, or when I was living in different places, but I don’t think in terms of feeling 24.”
The reason I ask is that the publicity about The Made (which opens next week) focuses on the age of two of its central characters: there’s stressed-out late-40s Alice, a scientist and divorced mother-of-one; and one of her creations Nanny Ann, a very humanoid robot who, in the playwright’s words, brings “an unbridled, no-fucks-to-give approach to the holy grail of post-menopause life”.
Anxious late-40s, no-fucks 50s, these are phases not often immortalised on stage. Is Perkins doing the same thing she did at 24 when, as a student of Bill Manhire’s creative writing course, she made art out of unpromising ingredients?
“I think I understand what you mean,” she says. “I know that when I was young my mother was an avid reader and there were novelists of a similar age to her, people like Margaret Drabble, who would chart the stages in a woman’s life in a way that my mother felt spoke to her. That has stayed with me and I am really interested in different times of life, but then it all just comes out of being interested in being alive.”
“I think there are these bigger times, like say your mid-20s; and certainly this time for women [my age] is really significant. There’s quite a lot around about it these days, not all of which I follow or am interested in, but it does feel worth exploring because it’s a lens; a lens to look at women’s lives. Fundamentally what’s interesting to me narratively is that it’s about change. In that way it’s like that earlier mid-20s time of life, which might have felt like a time of drift, but also there was this inner turmoil.”
The 50s, like the 20s, she says, also bring a certain fearlessness. “You start to look around and think about who’s making decisions, who holds the reins, and you might think, well those people aren’t that different from me… It makes you feel a certain kind of ‘why not?’ It’s freeing.”
In The Made, Perkins has trained her lens on both the artificial and natural worlds. There are robots, of course, and mushrooms, apparently; material elements that give theatrical impact and are also vehicles for less tangible themes. One of those, embodied by Alice, is mid-life career angst and the professional sidelining that can happen in middle age. I ask Perkins if she’s experienced anything like that. “Not myself,” she says. “I haven’t worked in that kind of environment, but I’ve seen it happen to people who I really had thought were at the top of their game. People who are innovative and talented and full of institutional memory and all of those good things, and so it’s quite blindsiding when it happens.”
As a writer, you can’t be restructured out of your role, but you can be deemed irrelevant. How does Perkins avoid that? “I think you have to just keep paying attention,” she says. “You have to stay curious. I don’t know if there’s a formula, I try not to think about things like that. I don’t walk around wondering if I’m relevant, I think that’s a hiding to nothing. I just have to be really interested in something and troubled by it and then I’ll make work from it.”
One of those things is technology and the way we imbue it with human traits. Writing a play about the creation of female bots allowed Perkins to explore which feminine qualities, including and beyond sex appeal, are exalted by society. “Like nurturing,” she says. “That’s an obvious one. Being caring. Taking emotional responsibility. These aren’t necessarily bad things, I just think they need to be expanded. I think generally there’s a pervasive idea that women are more naturally emotionally intelligent than men. And that adds pressure in all kinds of subtle ways. In workplaces, families… And then there’s a part of people that really hates being mothered as well, that’s when it gets nasty. We need people to be these things but we don’t necessarily value them. We don’t want to give them power.”
Perkins herself has been a mother for a long time – the kids she shares with Maughan are now 22, 20 and 17. She’s always found domestic life a rich source of creative inspiration, she says. And, on a practical level, it hasn’t tripped her up as it does some female writers. “In a way I’ve felt pretty free within my family life, I’m aware that I’ve been really fortunate in that. It shouldn’t be unusual but maybe it is. Karl does take responsibility for most of the domestic sphere, practically… I still don’t think it’s normalised for a woman to be handing that role over. And I don’t think I was any more willing to let go of it than the average person, but he is just very skilled [domestically] so that was sheer dumb luck on my part… And then when the kids were older we started having other people involved with childcare.
“But I still feel complicated about all of that,” she adds, with an apparent twinge of working-mother guilt. “You kind of do what feels like the best thing at the time. But again, speaking about being this age, you have to face up to certain things – those years don’t come back, it’s the hard truth… At the time you’re doing your best and needing to work for all kinds of reasons – sanity, money, all of that.”
In The Made, the robot that Alice creates to help with her complicated life, Nanny Ann, is played by Bronwyn Bradley. She’s someone who, Perkins says, through the workshop process added something of her own to the role. “It needed something and she just got it. It’s a beautiful combination of her intelligence, her humour and irreverence and warmth. The strength of her presence.”
The admiration is mutual. “I love Emily diving into this,” says Bradley, who’s on the phone next. Bradley is a similar age to Perkins and also has three almost grown kids. “Alice is at that stage of life where kids are getting big but they still have expectations, which is part of the obstacle course that no one bothered to tell us about,” she says with a loud husky laugh. “There’s so much that happens at this stage of life, I don’t feel that I was ready for it and I see the same thing in my friends.”
Exploring these themes feels fresh and new. “We are starting to see those women but for a long time we didn’t,” says Bradley. “I really love that [my character] pushes Alice to be bold, to not be polite and to maybe feel that it’s OK to need stuff and to take what she needs. I also love that in the heart of the story, Alice is looking for alliances.”
Female loneliness is another key theme in The Made, which again rang true for Bradley. “I think women can become quite isolated because busyness can make you neglect important things. They become really centralised around their children and put their relationships outside family on hold. And then when that part of your life moves on… Emily has written a play about technology, but it’s really about human relationships, particularly at this stage of life.”
Back to Perkins. The Made is just part of what feels like a renaissance from a writer who’s been quieter in recent years. Perkins has a novel out next year and is working on some short stories. The hiatus was in part because for eight years she had a hefty role as a senior lecturer at the place she started started writing herself, Wellington’s IIML. She loved the job, especially the interaction with the age group she adores, those fearless and conflicted early 20-somethings. “It’s a beautiful, delicious, explorative time of life.”
But even more than that, she’s loves being a full-time writer again, losing herself in her work. From a distance, hers seems like a rich, blessed life. I ask, has it ever had a really low point?
She thinks. “Probably mid- to late-40s. Not that long ago! It’s too recent for me to have much perspective on why that was. I had a job I loved, a lovely family, day-to-day was probably great. I don’t think it’s as simple as to say I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to — I mean, that was a part of it — maybe it was that sense of something coming to an end, something else beginning. That’s probably why I’m feeling so fucking great now. It’s over. “
From stressed-out 40s to no-fucks 50s. Emily Perkins is back. “I feel like the released arrow.”