Author Elizabeth Knox has written 13 novels, three novellas and a collection of essays. She has won numerous awards, has been translated into many languages and has just been the subject of an international bidding war for her most recent novel, The Absolute Book. Knox is also an Arts Foundation Laureate and in 2002 was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
I met Fergus, my husband, over my first novel, After Z-Hour. I'd started writing it in Bill Manhire's original composition class at Victoria University in 1984, back when it was a stage two paper with six credits. Bill said to me, "Never mind if you drop some courses, just finish this novel." I was about three-quarters done when Bill asked if he could show it to Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press. I said, "Oh yes, yes" and suddenly they were like, "Can you finish this? VUP want to publish it as their first novel."
Hearing the name Fergus Barrowman, I immediately visualised a fellow in his 40s with a big beard, although Fergus happened to be in his mid-20s and not at all what I'd imagined. Back then, I was somebody who had crushes on people and I would declare myself to the person, at which point they'd run a mile. So I developed a crush on Fergus, a very mild one but already my younger sister had had enough of me agonising and doing nothing and she said, "For God's sake, I'm not going to listen to any more of this unless you jump his bones." Of course, I couldn't jump his bones but I did what I always do and declared myself. I told him I was attracted to him during a meeting where we were signing off on the copyediting. But instead of him running a mile, Fergus kissed me and picked me up and carried me off to his bed and that's how we ended up married. I'm not sure you should put that in the newspaper - but we're old people now, so you can.
I love literary festivals. There have been times I've been too shy to talk to other writers, or I've read them later and been overwhelmed with regret that I didn't bowl up and talk to them. In Adelaide, I helped Hilary Mantel with her luggage and we went supermarket shopping together. Then I went to her session and thought, "Oh my God, this woman is a genius." Then I read her and I think I would've been too shy to go supermarket shopping and be normal with her, had I known how much I'd admire her.
Literary festivals are all different, all with interesting bad behaviour, which I'm usually on the sidelines of. But there was this one time in Adelaide - I was there on the back of The Vintner's Luck - when I went to a poker game at a writers' retreat at McLaren Vale. An Australian thriller writer turned up with weed. There was a French poet, and Vikram Seth - who wrote A Suitable Boy - and some others. We were gambling with sugar sachets. They sent me and the French poet to raid other units for cheese and snacks. We also came back with more sugar sachets up our sleeves, so we could continue to gamble, in spite of losing. Talking about it the next morning at breakfast, Fay Weldon overheard us and she was horrified she wasn't asked to join in. "But I love playing poker," she said.
I'm allergic to boredom — that's been the story of my life — and I'm very good at entertaining myself. As a storyteller, I'm really just telling myself a story, very slowly, as I write. I still write in longhand, with a pencil and paper and, before I start, I throw my phone out of reach and just work. I have to turn off all things that go "bing" then, after a while, Fergus will come in and tell me what I've missed on Twitter. He'll say, "You mean you've not looked at Twitter all day?"
About 19 years ago, a friend rescued a mother cat and her kittens that she'd found in a box in the garage of the pastor of a Samoan congregational church. The box was full of Bibles, and the top Bible was open to Genesis, so one of the kittens was named Kenese, Samoan for Genesis. When my friend went to Brisbane, she asked me to look after the cats, so five kittens and their mother came to stay. I fell in love with Kenese, who my son renamed Disky and with Patrick, a ginger boy with big ears and feet. Disky was caramel-coloured, dopey and short-sighted. Two others of the five went off to other families and my friend took Ida, the black girl. One day while visiting my friend I watched Ida running up and down the hallway of the house, playing by herself. So I asked if I could have her and I took her home and put her in front of her brothers and they were like, "Oh, it's you again." Our three cats lived to a ripe old age. Disky died of a brain tumour at 18. Patrick, my beloved darling, had kidney failure at 19 and because they loved each other so deeply, Ida died of a broken heart, soon after. It was so sad but also inevitable that whichever cat was left would suffer the loss of the others. She just couldn't handle being an only cat. The cats helped with the writing, they helped with everything. Cats are fantastic, calming creatures. I miss them terribly.
How do I cope with disappointment? This is not an inspirational story. I weep and wail and I feel the hurt deeply. I am discouraged and I don't write for quite a while. I take everything very hard, I am not at all philosophical but I'm also a cockroach, so you cannot kill me. Other people tell you - and you tell yourself, "Come on, you've been through these things before" but I can't turn myself into a different person. I'm not very good at enjoying success and I'm inclined to brood upon failures.
I climb metaphorical mountains. I like climbing mountains. When it comes to working hard on a knotty book, on things that are difficult, I love it. I do sometimes talk to writers who are having a hard time. They'll tell you how much they hate writing at that moment. I have met writers who've said they hate absolutely everything about writing. I regard those people as rather strange - what is it like, wanting to be a writer so badly, yet hating writing?
You spend so much time doing it, you either have to desperately need to do it if you find it that hard or you have to enjoy it. I love it and I'm never going to stop - at least not until my brain gets all shabby.