Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Sarah Quigley Q&A

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Berlin-based NZ writer Sarah Quigley. Photo / Martin Hunter
Berlin-based NZ writer Sarah Quigley. Photo / Martin Hunter

Sarah Quigley - or should I say Dr Sarah Quigley, for she has a doctorate in English literature from Oxford, no less - has long been recognised as one of New Zealand's finest writers.

Her fourth novel, The Conductor, is one of our June feature books and is attracting a symphony of favourable reviews in the New Zealand media.

Here, Quigley tells us about the inspiration for the story, her life in her adopted home of Berlin and how music can provide sustenance in dark times.

Q: How does a New Zealand writer living in Berlin come to tell the story of a Russian composer and conductor?

A: I've always been interested in Shostakovich's music, which can be difficult and very beautiful at the same time. I also began thinking about how difficult it must have been to be a composer or a writer living and working under a repressive Stalinist regime.

Something else I've been interested in writing about, for a long time, was the task of a conductor, which seems as lonely and demanding a profession as that of an artist.

After I read about the historic performance of the Leningrad Symphony, my imagination was caught.

I realised I could combine two stories, that of Shostakovich and that of the conductor, in a blend of fact and fiction. I began the long task of research for the novel, and wove it together with my own imagined Leningrad and partially invented characters.

Q: How did you put together a mental picture of Leningrad in World War II?

A: When I first moved to Berlin, I noticed so many traces of the war that hadn't been erased by time. In East Berlin, there are still bullet holes in buildings and bunkers in the city streets. This made the war seem very much closer than it might otherwise have been.

I also read a lot about wartime Russia - the deprivation, the shelling and bombing - and I tried to imagine what it must have been like living in such chaos and danger, without knowing when or if it would ever end.

Q: How did you get into the heads of your characters, many of whom are real people of another culture, another era and another gender, who speak another language?

A: I've read some Russian literature - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky - which may have helped in the writing process. But essentially, once I'd created the main characters they came to seem very real and complex - just like any human being, regardless of nationality or era.

Although in one way The Conductor can be seen as a very Russian story - the resilience, the determination, and the passion for art - it's also a universal one, with relevance to anyone who loves music, or has loved another person, or has created art, or has been through times of great hardship.

Q: You've previously said that "music can touch people's hearts and sustain them through the darkest of times". Has your musical background sustained you through any dark times?

A: I learnt the cello and the piano from quite a young age. Music has always been an important part of my life. Certainly I think it can be a great solace, both listening to it and playing it. When I moved to England in my twenties (I did a Ph. D. in Literature at Oxford University) I was quite homesick.

My college had a Steinway that we were allowed to use, and I always felt much better after I'd played for a while. These days I have an upright piano in my apartment in Berlin. I play most days and this helped quite a bit during the process of writing the novel.

Somehow I could still think about the book while I played, and often things fell into place.

Q: The story goes that you went to Berlin for the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency in 2000 and loved it so much you stayed. True? Why?

A: After my residency finished, I felt I was only just starting to know the city. Berlin can be a tough city to understand. It has such a chequered, complicated history and especially at that time it was changing rapidly.

I decided to stay a little longer, and gradually it began feeling like home. One of the best things about it is the number of artists based here. It's so reassuring to be surrounded by people who value the same things as you do - art, books, music - without necessarily placing emphasis on commercial gain.

Berlin is also a very tolerant, colourful, and diverse city. I love the way there's never any pressure to conform to one way of living.

Q: The Conductor has been well received by critics in New Zealand, and has very quickly topped the bestsellers list. Is that a relief, after having it living in your head for so long?

A: Yes, it's great that the characters are free to step into the world at last, and that other people can get to know them. The novel took a long time to write, and I didn't show any of it to anyone until I was fairly satisfied that it was finished.

It's always a relief to step back and let other people share what you've been absorbed in for so long.

Q: What are your favourite books?

A: I love The Book of Disquiet by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. It's fragmentary, poetic, and beautifully written; you can read it very slowly, and be drawn into its dream-like world.

Also Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Don DeLillo's The Body Artist, Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart, and any of the Paris Review interviews with writers.

When I'm working on a novel I don't read much fiction. I tend to read letters or journals of other writers: Katherine Mansfield's letters, Woolf's diaries, Steinbeck's working journals.

Currently I'm reading a collection of Chekhov's letters, which are really absorbing and surprisingly modern.

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