Book Review: Words Chosen Carefully

By Michael Larsen

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Words Chosen Carefully ed by Siobhan Harvey
Cape Catley $44.99

Book cover of Words Chosen Carefully. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Words Chosen Carefully. Photo / Supplied

I haven't checked to see if Lloyd Jones has a Facebook page, or whether Elizabeth Knox can Tweet me, but in an era where we can know everything we could possibly want to about a favourite artist, and plenty we don't, the channels for our lauded writers and poets to reveal a little of themselves and their craft are not as readily available.

The more renowned practitioners, C.K. Stead, for example, are certainly studied at university, while others have taught creative writing at various programmes and so are accessible to a point. But understanding their motivations, finding an opportunity to have them expound on their techniques - the literary interview, as Siobhan Harvey says in her excellent introduction - "has become internationally regarded as an indispensable record of a writer's work, their interpretation of their output and their debate about the job of writing".

Yet, truncated by commercial necessity, the author interviews that dot the nation's review pages are not what Harvey is referring to, while the discussions that appear in Landfall et al don't reach as wide an audience as they might.

Citing The Paris Review as an inspiration, Harvey has compiled interviews with 15 "mid-career" New Zealand authors and given them a chance to let forth as prompted by some very inquiring interviewers.

If you disagree with the exclusions or inclusions (of either hunter or prey) of the anthology, read the introduction: Harvey defends her corner rigorously and with substantive logic. She pitches Words Chosen Carefully as an important collating exercise, fulfilling a need to record our cultural heritage, capturing our great writing minds at a certain epoch and comparable time in their career. It does this, and it is a fine and very approachable read.

Does it diminish or enhance our appreciation of a writer's work to know more about their motives, message and technique? It's all very well to say, "Well Jenny, I'll pop the jug on and you tell me what you think," and some of the interviews are as charmingly informal as that, but in the process do we strip away some of the mystery? Is there a danger of knowing too much?

Do I appreciate Owen Marshall's outstanding output to a greater or lesser degree now that I know his real surname? Does it flesh out, or perhaps shade is a better word (carefully chosen, mind) Paula Morris' work to know that she collects Derwent coloured pencils with an obsession that took her to their factory in the Lake District? Yes and yes. But this book delivers riches above and beyond those anecdotal gems.

Some of the best discussions of the techniques and motivations of the writing craft that I have read anywhere can be had within its glossy pages. Kate De Goldi on the categorisation of children's literature, Charlotte Grimshaw on free will, Stead on, well, Stead, Elizabeth Knox on auras and visions, Kapka Kassabova on cultural dislocation: you are continually surprised by where the interviews lead.

Words Chosen Carefully is a collection of voices of both the authors and the interviewers themselves, many of them fine writers in their own right (John McCrystal, Lawrence Jones, Harry Ricketts), which is why it works so well. Occasionally there isn't a great deal of spontaneity - Lloyd Jones and Finlay Macdonald's chat was almost a dry run for another purpose, and it shows - but that may also simply be because author and subject are well acquainted.

Occasionally there is a lack of editorial control - there is repetition of ideas in Grimshaw's conversation with Nicholas Reid and a few of the other, longer pieces could have done with a dose of concision, but mostly you just soak up letting the artists expound and expand and, thankfully, there's not a dullard among them.

That's the final point. It doesn't matter if you know or like the author, you will still enjoy the interview. Being familiar with their work is handier in some places than it is in others, or more necessary but that's part of the joy: this sends you scurrying for the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature or, at the very least, Google.

Words Chosen Carefully is yet another reminder that the breadth and depth of literary talent in this country by far exceeds what you'd expect from such a small nation. More than that, it offers revealing insight into the key tenants of our literary space, critical if you're a writer yourself, engrossing as a reader, into what makes our talent tick and why they persevere. That space is enriched and expanded significantly by the release of this collection.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.

* An exhibition of images from the book is at Lopdell House Gallery, Titirangi, to October 3.

- NZ Herald

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