Wellington-based writer, teacher and podcast curator Pip Adam answers our five questions of the week. She will be on of the hosts of our upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat
1. What attracted you to writing and fiction in particular? Linked to this have you always written or been engaged in creative spaces?
When I was about nine or ten I got a typewriter for Christmas. I loved it. I think it was the first time I can remember ‘writing a story’, it was a play and it was about a girl all the other girls hated and I’m pretty sure it was set in a time before Aotearoa was colonised by the British. I think what I loved so much about it was the problem-solving and sense-making process. I think that’s what keeps me writing. I’ve said this before, but I find the world quite confusing. I often don’t understand why people do the things they do and I don’t understand why we organise our society around power and a lot of other things. So, I love the way fiction gives me a space to be inside other people or a situation in a safe way. I find people and conversations confusing and also a bit frightening so I tend to not ask the questions I need to or say the things I believe in, because I often make mistakes and people take offense – so fiction is a safe way for me to do this. I really like people and I also really like reality and I enjoy the problem of trying to mimic or synthesise or copy reality. I love that and fiction is so much fun for that reason.
2. You’ve chosen to write fiction and I’ve heard you say you enjoy exploring the line between fact and fiction. What is it about fiction that you are drawn to and how do you see your personal background and experiences influencing your work?
The other day when we were teaching at the prison one of the women asked, “What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?’ and my friend William Brandt gave an answer that has explained almost everything about why I like to write fiction and the type of fiction I want to write, he said, ‘In non-fiction it’s agreed that everything in the book is true, in fiction it’s agreed that it doesn’t matter if everything in the book is true or not true.’ I love fiction for that. My work is often very autobiographical and I often worry about whether it would be more honest to write non-fiction when I deal with this material. But I really like the way I can revisit past events and play with how they come out. It might even be therapeutic. Like in one story I was able to take about a person who I loved a lot and who had been sad for a long time and create a version of their life where they got some happiness. I also like to explore different versions of myself. Like, what if I had been brave enough to do this? I guess I like to start based in reality because I like reality so much, I like the rules of reality and I like the sort of ‘suduko’ quality of trying to make an imagined scenario fit seamlessly into a real situation. I really like Gregory Crewdson’s work and Yvonne Todd’s and Anne Shelton’s and Ava Seymour’s, actually I LOVE photography and I like how it is ‘real’, the way it interacts with reality, the way it is a copy of objects that exist in this reality but no matter how documentary a photograph is, it’s still not real in an empirical sense. I feel like that about all writing. Even reportage – actually maybe especially reportage. I’m really suspicious of writing that says it’s objective. That’s why I think I write fiction because I’m sort of announcing that I ‘made this up’ because I’m acutely aware that even when I think I’m telling the truth, I made it up, I decided which fact to tell first, I decided what words to use to describe the fact and I’m coming from a lifetime of navigating the world in such a way that it appears to me of a certain shape and from a certain point of view.
3. How does your teaching, work in prisons and other creative activities affect your writing processes and bring to your work?
Someone said to me once that the writing workshop works because we are all writers and we’re all having the same problems – just not at the same time. This makes being in a workshop the best job in the world. I always feel like I get to be in the engine room of writing. Like my mind is always in the nuts and bolts of fiction or poetry. How do I feel when I read this? How is this making me feel this way? I love it. And as you can imagine, it brings so much to my own work because I am with other writers so much and talking about writing so much. I reckon one of the best ways to make my work better is to interact with other people’s writing.
Writing in the prison is pretty amazing. I started going to prison because I wanted to work with people with backgrounds similar my own. I often feel like there are some voices that we don’t hear very often and when we do hear them they are often shut down pretty quick and I can be a bit susceptible to that pressure. I can find myself thinking, ‘Don’t write that, people don’t want to hear about that.’ So in a lot of ways, what writing in the prison gives me is a reminder of where I come from and who I am and that challenges me to continue to write from that place, rather than a place motivated by my desire to be accepted or praised.
4. What are you working on now?
I am so excited about my work life at the moment. I’ve been working with a photographer on a project that has been motivating (I love working with other people), I’m also writing a ‘tour’ for the final night of the Fiona Pardington exhibition which has me reading porn and some economic texts, and I’m also involved in the Porirua People’s Library (PPL) a project which part of runs during TEZA in November. I’m really enjoying that. The PPL project is going to be a real challenge for me because I am going to be approaching people in the mall to help me write a piece collaboratively. I’m hoping to write an alternative issue of the Dominion Post that includes what people wish the newspaper said.
We’re also making more podcasts – Better off Read. Which I really love.
As well as all this work I’m trying to write another book-length work. It’s so funny how my obsessions are always sitting on my shoulder, I was just looking back on my answer about fiction and my rant about reality because this is the problem I am wrestling with at the moment with this thing. I am trying to make something happen in reality that probably can’t happen.
5. Tell us about the workshop, what should people expect?
The workshop I’ll be taking is about the structure of book-length works. I’m keen for people to come who have drafts of book-length works – novels, memoirs, collections of poetry or short fiction. I’m interesting in looking at that word ‘structure’ and asking questions of a book-length draft like, ‘Where is the work tallest?’, ‘Which are the structural walls? The ones holding the most force?’, ‘Where does the sun comes in?’, ‘Where is the work loudest?’ I’m hoping that by looking at the work as a three-dimensional thing we might get some distance from it to really interrogate it. I find it very hard to work with a 60,000 word document but I’m hoping that if we turn that Word file into something different something we can walk around in our mind it will feel more robust and resilient to change and movement. I don’t think we’ll do a lot of writing in the workshop. I think we’ll be using other forms of expression.