Hamish Clayton is a writer of fiction, essays and criticism. His first novel, Wulf (Penguin New Zealand, 2012), won the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book Award, and he is currently working on a second novel. In this interview he speaks about the nature of storytelling, the influence of painting on his writing, and his essay 'The lie of the land' in Griffith REVIEW 43, a 'biography' of Russell Drysdale's iconic painting 'The Drover's Wife', a painting with a complex history not only to Australia's cultural imaginary but to his own family's mythology.
You painted before you wrote, and I'm wondering whether that has influenced your work as a writer? Your writing has a sense of having many layers working together at once, which strikes me as quite painterly.
I think you're right on the mark actually. It's something I have been conscious of, that the way I write now is similar to the way I used to paint. When I was painting I used to spend a great deal of time getting the undercoats right and only very gradually, very slowly, adding layers and letting the shape of the thing emerge. I would reach a point where it felt like the painting was creating itself, revealing itself. I do the same with writing. I write endless drafts and revisions and let the thing build up gradually until it feels like it's working by itself and I'm just listening to the voice, finding out what happened in the lives of those I happen to be writing about. With Wulf, there was another, more direct correlation with painting as well. In the aesthetic judgments I made as I wrote, and given the book's subject matter, I was quite consciously guided by a desire to find a written equivalent of nineteenth century New Zealand landscape painting. A friend of mine, another writer, said she'd found Wulf 'very capital-R Romantic', which was nice to hear. I felt like I'd pulled it off when she said that.
I know that you won the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book Award in 2012 for Wulf,and you're at work on a second novel. Do awards like that make you confident in your writing?
I find the whole awards thing a bit of a double-edged sword actually. Obviously it's hugely humbling and a great privilege to have your writing recognised in that way, but they're not arbiters of enduring literary value necessarily. There are plenty of great books that don't win anything. People tell me that Wulf is a strange little book, perhaps not the kind of thing that routinely pops up on national awards lists, and I certainly wasn't writing it with an eye towards that sort of thing. I was just trying to write the book I wanted to write. To do that and then to see it do well was a nice shot in the arm, so yes, it did help give me some confidence in what I like to write.
Do winning those kind of awards sometimes have a secondary effect of placing more pressure on you to be representative of a particular kind of writing or place or people?
As I've been writing the second book I've really tried to put the idea of whom I'm writing it for out of my mind. Wulf clearly had a few things to say about cultural politics and the politics of representation, and in a way that specifically pertained to New Zealand's history of engagement between Maori and Pakeha. Along with that interest in cultural politics, I am fascinated by the idea of New Zealand and New Zealandness as it is expressed creatively. I am interested in interrogating it on those terms. I am more comfortable framing the relationship between my writing and my environment that way than I am in laying any kind of claim to being a representative voice or anything like that.
There's a strong theme in the essay about the nature of storytelling, the gaps between stories and reality, the nature of representation. From what I understand, those are ideas that you explored to some extent in your first novel.
I did dive into that territory pretty heavily with Wulf. I think a lot of the writing I love carries the suggestion that when we write we are inevitably taking a position of some sort, and we ought to acknowledge that. We can explore history, for example, in fiction, but if we are going to do that we need to acknowledge our own cultural biases, the limits and prejudices we inevitably bring to bear. The way stories stand in for reality is a hugely potent thing, similar to how memory works, or sometimes fails to work. It is a deeply rich and magical space, that story-telling zone. It's very easy to fall in love with what happens there, but most of what I write does tend to – or tries to – carry an acknowledgement of the mechanics of the illusion as well. Because if stories do matter, and if they are to boil down to anything beyond the aesthetic charm of the illusion, then we ought to acknowledge the complexity with which they are made.
I think it's interesting that you never get to the bottom of who 'Jim's Wife' actually is in your essay. She's the centre of the Drysdale painting, of Bail's story, of your family's mythology, but in the end she's a kind of cipher used to project a story onto. Her presence is bound up in absence. Do you think figures like that make easy breeding grounds for the creation of national myth?
I like the way you put that: 'a kind of cipher used to project a story onto.' I think that gets it nicely. We might have an interest in finding out who the real woman was, but even if we were to find out, we wouldn't necessarily lose whatever we might have invested in the impression of her that we've carried. But of course, writing an essay from the viewpoint of a young man trying to uncover the truth beneath a family mythology relies on a sincerely held belief in the power of the mythology to begin with. Even though, as you say, we never get to the bottom of it. I suppose the essay is an ode to that kind of mythological figure who sits in the family history, an oddly kind of fleeting and yet stable presence. I do think there's something tantalizing about the figure who refuses to come into full view, whose story always seems to recede somehow, whose details slip from our grasp and maintain their distance. It would make sense to me that these figures are inevitably mythologized. I haven't thought deeply on it, but perhaps those kinds of figures play particularly into the Australian or New Zealand imagination. Perhaps the idea of the figure that disappears or absconds, leaving only the fleeting hearsay of rumour and legend behind, speaks to a fairly deep-set impression we carry of our distance from the rest of the world. I think the idea of distance from the cultural centres of Britain and Europe and later, America, has been a formative anxiety in the story of New Zealand art and literature. I am hardly expert in the Australian histories of those fields so I can't say how well this plays out in that context. In New Zealand I've recently begun to hear more people remarking how great it is that we're over the 'cultural cringe' surrounding our art, and I usually think, 'Hang on, if you're even mentioning the infamous cultural cringe, then it must have some lingering force, it must have more than just a vestigial power in the memory. It's an anxiety we haven't left behind entirely.'
When you emailed me you said you were pleased I liked your essay, and that you were 'wondering what Australian readers might make of it.' It made me wonder whether you think of yourself as a New Zealand writer, and what kind of reaction you might expect an Australian to have had to your writing about a canonical Australian painting?
I think that's something I can't help but feeling, that identification as a 'New Zealand writer'. Partly because I've been immersed in it for so long at university. Even though I don't whole-heartedly embrace, necessarily, the idea that a writer is obliged to address the country she or he happened to come from. I don't feel an obligation to do that, and I don't judge books according to how worthy they are in those terms. But the idea of what makes a national literature in a young country like New Zealand has been such a dominant concern for significant periods in the past that it's hard to go past the question. At least for me. To be honest I didn't really have any expectations as to what an Australian reader might make of my take on a canonical Australian painting, and the literature surrounding it. But I will be interested to hear. I like the idea of the cross-cultural exchange which it involves.
You went to university and began studying literature later in your twenties. I wonder what kind of impact the university environment had on your writing, particularly deciding to go into an academic environment later in life.
It was hugely important. And it was a calculated decision. I had begun to realise that I was far more interested in writing than painting and that if I was serious about giving writing a go I would need to be well-read, and well-read in the particular way that university hones. I was already reading a lot of stuff that was later set on courses and having my own thoughts and ideas about it, but there is no substitute for the targeted, guided reading that you get to do at university. And I actually enjoyed, and still enjoy, the academic writing as well. So university helped me get my house in order in terms of all the gears and cogs you need to have turning and running smoothly below the surface of the writing itself. Being in my twenties was advantageous because I knew I wanted to be there and I worked hard at it. I would recommend it actually. To anyone thinking about writing, go and do a few papers in English lit and see how you get on. It certainly influenced the kinds of thing I now write. Sometimes you hear people say you can't teach writing – I'm not really sure where I stand on that – but I am sure that I wouldn't have had the ideas I've had for stories and essays and books without having gone to university. It doesn't teach you how to have the ideas, but it teaches you to recognise the good ones when they come along.