A close friend, with whom I have often worked in the theatre, has sent me ten questions concerning The Disestablishment of Paradise.
My friend has a fine sense of humour backed by a sharp critical mind and a gift for irony: so, even when we jest, I take him seriously. His questions are clear, informed and provocative, and I hope to respond to them in depth over the next few weeks.
I have decided to publish them initially, more or less as I received them. I think you will enjoy my friend’s wit.
1. Congratulations on your novel Mr. Mann, I enjoyed it immensely. The women in your books are really something! Miranda in A Land Fit For Heroes became absolutely fearsome. The central character in your latest novel is a woman, the narrator Olivia is a woman, and along the way a number of the characters, beginning with the Captain of the shuttle, whom the unguarded male reader might initially read as male, turn out to be women. Meanwhile the male protagonist, a hard Australian packing muscle and brawn and practical know-how, turns out to be the most intuitive and sensitive, the most “feminine” of them all. Two questions: Were Hera and the narrator always conceived as female from the very start?; and How has your conception of women characters developed through your fiction over the years since The Eye of the Queen?
REPLY. The narrator was a relatively late development. During the writing of the book, I was aware that it bore some similarities to The Eye of the Queen (Eg, a human being residing alone amid an alien race). I can not remember when, but at some point, I decided to solve some of the narrative problems by expanding the narrative laterally, to include historical documents, recorded dialogues etc. This also meant that I needed a narrator – again like The Eye of the Queen. In a way I let the choice be Hera’s – viz. her letter to Olivia in the Introduction. The result was Olivia Ginger – a woman who contrasts with Hera in many ways from looks and temperament to background and experience. They are, however both highly intelligent. Olivia is somewhat cynical after three failed marriages, while Hera is passionate and still deeply in love with the only man she has ever really known, Mac. You can see the contrast between them when Olivia cries after Hera has revealed her intimacy with Mac (See page 345) Olivia has never achieved that level of intimacy with anyone. I liked the fact that the two women clashed and argued. These interviews quite naturally became part of the texture of the book. They allow the reader to hear the authentic voice of Hera. They became so real to me that I only had to start a dialogue to hear their voices.
As regards the second part of your question: Although there are really no women in The Eye of the Queen, all the women in my later books are confident, strong and passionate women. Miranda in A Land fit for Heroes undergoes many transformations, and ultimately becomes a Goddess. Undoubtedly The Disestablishment of Paradise is my longest and fullest treatment of female character. I can tell you this that I was very surprised when I realized that all, save one, of the major characters in the book are women. That was not planned, it was just the way it worked out – I am very glad to say.
2. Congratulations on your novel Mr. Mann, I enjoyed etc. If I understand aright, you first conceived and wrote this novel a long time ago, and it has been finally published after a long delay. Two questions:
i) Has the novel remained substantially the same over the decade or more in which it languished in a drawer? How much revision and rewriting did it undergo when you prepared it for publication?
It has remained substantially the same in content – although I did a bit of trimming and re writing for clarification at the request of the editor, Marcus Gipps. His editing was brilliant and gave me a lot of confidence. However, the basic narrative began as a short story. This became a novella and finally a full novel. There was a point in the writing when it suddenly took off and I got a sense of the scale of what I was attempting. Luckily, this did not happen until I was well advanced in the book and by then the prose was flowing the characters were assertive and Paradise was alive as a place. I loved writing the dialogue sections as they brought me very close to the emotions of the work. I cut out quite a bit and had to weather a lot of well-meaning criticism among which were suggestions that I remove the narrator, that I cut the book in half, that I throw away the documents etc. etc. Finally, unable to find a publisher, in deep sorrow, I put the book away. It was as complete as I could make it – and to be perfectly frank, I thought it was my best work and I hoped that sometime, perhaps in a hundred years, it would be appreciated for what it is. I started a new work, which is still not complete. Then of course I heard from Gollancz and it was all systems go again.
ii) When you first came to New Zealand in the late 1960s, New Zealand seemed to be a comparatively egalitarian society, and we could swim in the rivers. Since then a huge gulf has opened up between rich and poor, and the natural environment has become terribly degraded. So my question is this: Your novel, enthralling and richly rewarding at the literal level, is also richly symbolic; has it been written more out of sadness or anger?
There is both sadness and anger, but there is hope too. The first step in solving a problem is to understand it: that is where literature comes in. We are in crisis, not only in NZ but in the world at large and it must be faced. The deepest ‘message’ of the book – though I did not think in terms of a message when I was writing it – concerns our relationship with Nature. of which we are a part. My first aim is always to entertain. Once that is accomplished we can talk about issues. However, I can not help but feel grief when I see destruction of the environment and read of extinctions. The world does not have to be like this… but the first change must be in our minds. I believe that change is taking place but how long do we have? A video giving an eye-witness account of the oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and the ongoing problems related to it has recently been released in New Zealand. It sounds the tocsin, since the NZ government has granted permission for under sea oil exploration in our waters. If you would like to hear more about the risks, watch the following. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yduv3APYawA&feature=youtu.be
New Zealand takes pride in, and is renowned for, its clean green image. Sadly, it is now a tarnished image and the present government is doing little to improve it. How I wish that we could put ‘Green’ policies at the heart of our planning, whether it be for buildings, transport, power or food production. I know this would be difficult, but there comes a tipping-point after which change becomes almost impossible. The old ways are forgotten: the new ways do not work. I do not want to accused of being an alarmist, but as a writer I must speak the truth as I see it. Paradise reached that tipping point and nature began to rebel. So what are we seeing now with mighty storms in the USA, the worst flooding in Europe for hundreds of years and accelerating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere? The Disestablishment of Paradise is more than just an ecological cri de coeur, but it is a warning, and a recognition that life is precious and very vulnerable. My greatest fear is that we have not evolved institutions which combine compassion with realistic forward thinking: had we done so, we would not be in the mess we are now in.
3. Congratulations on your novel Mr Mann, I etc. Following on from that, do you think that in the final analysis your novel is, overall, mostly optimistic or pessimistic: I have my definite opinion about that as a reader, but I’m interested in your thoughts as the author. I think there is a paradox here: books which face the reality of our condition can be seen as pessimistic, but the very act of facing that truth is liberating. Thus a book which deals with suffering can remain positive since it celebrates the human spirit. That is why tragedy – even as extreme as King Lear – is ultimately uplifting.
In terms of the Disestablishment of Paradise, the book is finally optimistic. But optimism comes at a price and is hard won. The clever, manipulative mentality represented by Timothy Isherwood and Dr Hilder van Terfel control the world. They have the power and they will use it ruthlessly to their own advantage. In the book they are finally defeated and humiliated – but only because enough good people, fair-minded people, honest people stand up to them. In the back of my mind was the quotation from John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
In the following, I quote from the second chapter of the D of P. Abhuradin, captain of the space platform above Paradise is speaking. She and Hera Melhuish have just had a bruising encounter with Timothy Isherwood and Hilda van Terfel, and both women are a bit shaken and angry. Abhuradin is speaking
And, yes, I do take a keen interest in the economic well-being of Paradise, because I do not want to see it ruined. In my view this would have been a rather nice place to bring up children. Or do you not think of such things?” Hera did not reply. “But worst of all Dr Melhuish, worst of all is to know that you haven’t a clue about what is really going on now. Have you?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“That meeting just now. What do you think it was about?”
Hera thought for a moment. “Well. They were trying to make a fool of me, thanks to you. And that van Terfel woman, was clearly primed. But overall I think they were trying to calm us down so that we wouldn’t make too much of a fuss. Buy us off with promises of redundancy payouts. It is an old trick.”
“Wrong. Dr Melhuish. Zero out of ten, Dr Melhuish.” Abhuradin was speaking more softly now and approached Hera until she was very close. “They had a number of agendas, one of which was winding you up so that you would make a fuss and demand an appeal.”
“Because they want you out of the way. When the appeal comes, they’ll crush you. I don’t know how, but they will. They will have something over you, and their planning is probably well advanced already. And then, when you are safely out of the way, they’ll close down Paradise, for a while.”
“What do you mean, ‘for a while?’ Stop talking in riddles. If you know something that I don’t….”
“I know no more than you. But, I know how these things are done. You watch. They’ll disestablish Paradise all right. But they’ll leave the space platform in place. This platform on which we are standing. I stake my career on it.”
“And why would they do that? You heard what that van Terfel woman said about it costing so much money to keep the platform open.”
Captain Abhuradin looked at her in disbelief, and then she spoke very slowly and distinctly. “After about five years, or ten maybe depending on sensibilities, someone somewhere will come up with the bright notion that a place is needed for recreation. And then someone from somewhere else will remember and say “What about that derelict old planet Paradise?” Then they’ll talk to someone in high places who will tell them, “Sorry there is an environmental restriction order placed on Paradise.” Shock! Horror! “But we won’t do any harm. In fact we will enhance the environment. Take me to your leader.” And within a couple of years they’ll be in. And all your nightmares about kiddies’ rides and old folks homes will come true… but it will be worse. It will be a hundred times worse. It will be more terrible than you can ever imagine… because there will be no one here to stop it. Not me. Not you. That is why they need to get rid of you, and all your friends at ORBE, and me too – because I am not thought of as a friend. Come back in ten years and then we’ll see you weep. Those lovely mountains. Those clear seas. No fish there I understand. Is that right?” Hera nodded. “Well there will be. Specially engineered game fish – fresh-water marlin and swordfish. I wouldn’t mind betting that Dr van Terfel has already taken out shares in her grandson’s name. She knows a bargain when she sees one. And she knows a sucker too.”
“What you are saying is nonsense.” Hera tried to sound confident, but her voice sounded weak even to her own ears. “Secretary Isherwood signed the environmental decree. It is ironclad. ‘No Tourism on Paradise.’”
“Did he? Is it? Well perhaps you know more about men and politics than I do. But if I look at Secretary Isherwood with his bright red robe and his smiling face, I see a man who is political to the core. You don’t get to his position without being a bit corrupt, but nothing illegal, mind you – too smart for that. You can be corrupt without being illegal you know… or perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you are all saints down there in your green-houses. But at the end of the day, smiling Timothy Isherwood will come up smelling of roses. When the time is right and the price is right he will find reasons to sell Paradise to the highest bidder and will introduce a policy review or some such to overturn the environment order. Don’t look so shocked Hera. Use your brain for a change “ She paused and then added, “Like all clever people, the only thing you don’t ever seem to realize is that the enemy is at least as clever as you are. The difference being that they have vastly more power than you… and absolutely no hesitation about using it.”
Captain Abhuradin paused, saddened by the import of her own speech. When she spoke again her tone was more measured. “Your clever quotation earlier about a few good women doing nothing… Well in my view, there are only a few good women and a few good men too, – Tim Isherwood is probably one of the better ones – and the good people have to sleep sometimes and that is when the bad boys do their business. Good bye Hera. Go back down and join your own kind. Write your report.”
Hera stood still. Abhuradin’s words had shocked her and, as happened to her when in a state of shock, she had momentarily become a block of wood. The awful reality behind Abhuradin’s words was dawning on her. Finally she spoke and her voice was small. “Will you be coming to the judicial review?”
“Not unless I am ordered to attend. I shall not be putting in an official submission. No point. But in any case…”
“In any case what?”
“In any case, I do not want to be there and see you humiliated.”
In writing this I was attempting to show the way an exploitative mind-set operates. The fact is that the Isherwoods and van Terfels of our world would have won had Paradise its self not decided to take matters into its own hands and protect its self. The very fact that Paradise is now closed to humans is a cause of sadness, because it was so avoidable!
When I was writing the book, I certainly did not feel it was pessimistic, and nor have those who have read it. I believe this is because most of the book is affirmative of the human spirit. The Dendron, with its carefree spirit is saved. Love triumphs even though Hera has to leave Paradise – her fate is to be the one who bears witness. That planet is now cleansing its self, with the aid of certain humans – and it will be a long hard fight, I am sure. But Paradise will triumph if only because greed, manipulation, cheating etc. are ultimately, in their very nature, self-destructive.
Thus, there is movement and there is life. However, I was also aware, that I was quite close to tragedy. And Tragedy, let us remember affirms the human spirit by facing adversity and one’s fate directly. I am reminded of the words of F. L. Lucas in his short book called, simply Tragedy. He ends chapter 3 with the following words. “Tragedy, in fine, is man’s answer to this universe that crushes him so pitilessly. Destiny scowls upon him: his answer is to sit down and paint her where she stands.”
4. Congratulations on your novel Mr. etc. You have spent most of your professional career working in universities, in the creative field of drama. The word “cleverness” has for you a negative connotation, it implies that someone is merely clever at the risk of something as important or more important. Questions: How do you rate cleverness? What is the positive antidote to “mere” cleverness, and where do you locate it in daily living and interactions? Hera is cleverer than Mack, but Mack, not Hera, becomes one with Paradise. In your experience, are women both cleverer and more intuitive than men? (I could ask how you now look back on Victoria University of Wellington as an institution and as a community, but I won’t…)
This is a monumental question, or a whole heap of questions. ‘Cleverness’ is, I think, captured nicely in the Wilde’s phrase about people who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Wilde was replying to a question about cynicism, but the cap still fits. I think I see ‘cleverness’ as almost the antithesis of wisdom, for wisdom always seeks value beyond advantage. Cleverness can be achieved by reading books: wisdom comes from living with reflection. One of the movements in the book is for Hera to move from being clever to becoming something beyond that – I want to avoid the word wisdom. She has suffered, but she has also discovered and continues to be inspired by a deep love both for Mack and for Paradise. She has found the truth inherent in Milton’s sonnet on his blindness : “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I can not pretend to understand Mack beyond saying that he is an instinctive man with the mana of a great leader – though he would never say that. If you asked him where he gets his ability from, he would probably say his ‘granny’. I have known men and women who are both clever (in a generous way) and intuitive – and that has made them into good and abiding friends. To answer your question as directly as I can, I think the world would be a much safer place were it more controlled by women, if only because women are more in contact with their intuition. But men are changing too. Beyond that, generalizations are misleading.
5. Congratulations on your novel etc. I love the wit and linguistic intuition deployed in your choice of proper names. Proper names and nonsense are always rooted in the particular genius, the intimate spirit of a language. As a translator, I have vaguely consider how I would deal with the names in an Italian translation. Could Gin and Tonic, two glowingly colourless liquids be translated as Campari and Soda. I think not, because the red would throw a totally different light over Paradise. So two questions. How do these proper names come to you? And does it ever happen that, as a character develops, a name originally chosen turns out to be wrong, or are the names, once chosen, fixed points that never change?
1) How do the proper names come? In my case, the names just come to me as needed. It is no secret that the name a writer gives to character may come to have a deep significance of which the writer may be unaware. I discovered that with the name Pawl Paxwax when I wrote The Fall of the Families. I thought of Hera, in the D of Paradise, before I thought of the classical implications of her name, though I am sure those associations were somewhere in my mind. They were not part of my conscious intention.
2) In my experience, once a name is given it rarely changes but simply grows with the character. I do not write allegorically – though Hackabout might come close. Sometimes the names I use are consciously playful. Thus Dorothy is called Polka, which somehow fits her personality. I do not know where the name Abhuradin came from. I saw her initially as having long dark hair and a brown skin. Later this became a name which could be twisted into many different shapes, depending on who was speaking. That became a kind of game for the other characters. She is, of course, very beautiful – and is adept at handling this not in an exploitative way, but out of necessity.
6. Congratulations on your etc. Mack’s wisdom draws particularly on his granny’s experience and poetry. Two questions: To what extent does this draw on you own experiences with older relations or older people in general: and The novel is dedicated to your grandchildren; what sort of grandfather are you are you, and what sort of grandfather do you want to be?
1) I am sure that Mack’s Granny derives from both my Grandmother and my Mother – both of whom I would classify as wise women. My Grandmother had a hard life but was one of the kindest people I have ever known. She used to let me help her cooking and would make up stories. My mother loved poetry and would often quote poems. She also was a wonderful, wild storyteller.
2) What sort of grandfather am I? You must ask my grandchildren. I shall be happy if, at the end of the day, my grandchildren remember me as someone who was fun, a bit disreputable perhaps, but definitely on their side.
7. Congratulations on etc. Following on for this, there is a lovely thread of quotation and reference running through the novel which provides a special novelty to those who recognise them, but this is never, in my opinion, something flaunted and gratuitous. There are a number of references but Shakespeare predominates. My next question is rather complicated and circuitous, but here goes. “By indirections find directions out…” That of course is the suspect and Machiavellian Polonius, but taken out of context the quotation seems to me to describe a favourite narrative manoeuvre and favourite pattern of yours. Our way to the truth is never direct, but goes in roundabout ways, following the circling paths, the whirlpool, the crop circle, of a Michelangelo-Reaper. So my question is this. Your life has brought you to this point, of being a grandfather and writing this novel. Have the crucial choices you have made in your life, the decisions whether to turn to the left or to the right, been based on conscious choices or on hunches? A less personal way of framing this question is: How do we come to the truth of our experience and distil it in a novel?
I need to think a lot more about this. It is a very good question.
8. Congratulations etc. Mack teaches Hera how to be a bloke working in a team: you don’t engage in useless talk, you don’t compliment people directly, you are laconic, ironic, matter-of-fact and you just shut up, don’t indulge in emotions, and get on with the job. And if you get into a life-threatening situation you have to know exactly and in advance who’s calling the shots. Were you drawing on any personal experiences when you wrote this, or were they mostly stories and reports which triggered your imagination?
Those words came from Mack. When one is writing well, that character speak for you. You don’t have to plan anything. It happens, and then you just tidy up the loose ends. So, in a way I was a bit surprised to hear Mack say these things.
At the same time I have done some dangerous jobs in my time, jobs in which one has to trust one’s buddy. It can be a matter of life or death. Working at the top of a ladder high in the grid hanging lights of scenery can be very scary. I was once in that situation with someone who was handling scaffolding pipes. He turned round with a long pipe and struck me. Luckily I saw it coming and was able to hang on – but if it had knocked me off the ladder I would not be writing these words now. At the same time, I worked with another man in the grid and I knew that he would never make a mistake like that. He knew danger intuitively and so one was safe with him. On another occasion, when I was a young man, I was working as ploughman on a farm in the North of England. I had to reverse the tractor so that another man could attach a shackle. One slip from me on the tractor clutch and he would have been crushed by the plough. Such things make one very thoughtful. Mack is just being careful. When you are in real danger, you want to be with realistic people, not heroes or gamblers. And Mack is right. Clever people might ask questions or argue the toss, and the next thing you know, the ship is on the rocks.
9. Congrats etc. With reference to literary patterns and antecedents, I’d add this. Your novels have an epic sweep. The epic, rather than “science fiction”, is your preferred genre. From the Renaissance onwards, the great modern epics have always included an episode in which the protagonist dips out of martial action and enjoys a pastoral interlude, before they are jolted back by some means to resume their destinies in “the real world”, which involves blood and death. I don’t know if you ever read a well-known critical book of our youth, which covered the topic of literary paradise, entitled“The Earthly Paradise” by an author called Giamatti. A paradise has always been conceived of as a garden. I gather that the Greek word from which “paradise” derives was originally used by Xenophon to describe the parks of Persian kings and nobles. Milton of course – not, I would imagine but I may be wrong, a favourite author of yours devoted his novel – at the end of this sequence of Renaissance epics, devotes his entire poem to the expulsion from the biblical paradise. At the end of his “Purgatory”, Dante, who has been led through hell, has to be purged of sin in order to re-enter the Garden of Eden in a renewed state of innocence, as a new Adam. I’d better try and get a question or two out of these ruminations. I won’t ask you to what extent did any of this literature condition you, consciously or unconsciously: that might be a question too complicated to unravel. Try these: What importance do gardens and gardening have for you and why? and Does the lure of your gardens ever outweigh your desire for fame through wrestling with words?
1 What importance do gardens have for me? A great deal. Many of my happiest memories as a child are to do with the time I spent mucking about in gardens. But they are also places of contemplation. I love, for example, the idea that the teachings of Epicurus took place in a garden. I am somewhat a follower of Epicurus though we know little about him. I love the perfume of flowers, the busy buzzing of bees and the strange creaking of trees. At times being in a forest, or in the bush in New Zealand is like being in a cathedral. When I die, I would like my ashes to be sprinkled in a garden and hope fully they will help the flowers grow. For a while I studied Herbalism and I still believe the best cures are those provided by nature – which is not to say I do not appreciate our developments in surgery and medicine.
2. Does the lure of the garden outweigh … wrestling with words? Yes. When I finally hang up my type writer – ok computer – I can think of nothing nicer than sitting in the garden with a good book and a glass of wine never out of reach.
10. Cong. etc. One of the greatest characters in the novel is yet another female, Sasha Malik. Two questions.
i) Did you write the Documents as you went along, or are they early compositions as you built up your picture of Paradise by constructing its history, or are they, or some of them, afterthoughts.
Yes. I wrote then as I went along. The documents came, more or less as needed. Writing them gave me an understanding of what was happening. Thus, when I wrote Sasha Malic’s story Shunting A Rex, it was so that I could get a sense of a Dendron in full motion. At the same time, I discovered this wonderful storyteller Sasha who wrote about Paradise with intimate assurance. She wrote about the Paradise she knew as home, and she was one of the wild women of Paradise (of which there were many) who would follow their heart regardless of the consequences. This encouraged me to write other stories by Sasha since via her stories I could – painlessly, as it were – convey more information about Paradise. I too was learning from Sasha and I could hear her voice very clearly in my head. In the story How the Valentine Lily Got its Name, I was able to show how Sasha took a real and horrific incident of cruelty – an example of the kind of thing which was polluting the mind-space of Paradise – and was able to transform it into a love story. Sasha is truly a child of Paradise: her body would never be rejected and exhumed. She became very real to me, almost a kind of guide. At one point I did think of writing more stories by Sasha just for the sheer joy of doing it.
Thus, the Documents are an integral part of the text. They help explain the novel and give depth to the incidents. It is via the Documents that we come to see that the brilliant Professor Shapiro is a wounded hero, an addict to the plum, and his tragedy is that he knows that when his end comes, he will be rejected by Paradise. Hence he asks to be sent back to England.
The document One Friday Morning at Wishbone Bay is integral to the novel. It allowed me to reveal the Dendron as Marie Newton and her children saw it. I was able to use this as the basis for Mack to work from. He has to go back to first principles and realize where Marie Newton got it wrong. There was a certain finesse about that.
Anyone who thinks the Documents are just a fancy add-on is deeply mistaken.
ii) If this were a traditional picaresque novel, the documents would feature as inserted tales and documents included in the main body of the narrative – as such items are in fiction from Don Quixote to Pickwick Papers. How do you envisage your readers reading them? Interrupting their reading as they go along, or reading them as a set as they go along, as an appendix or postscript? Are they integral to the story or add-ons, in your authorial view?
I did not know how the audience would read them. I wanted the Documents to be able to stand alone; but at the same time, I was at pains to direct the reader to a relevant document when it would amplify the event. I wanted also for each of the Document writers (Sasha, Shapiro, Marie Newton, Wendy Tattersall etc.) to have their own voice. I wanted the to add to the texture and density of the novel. Clearly, Olivia Ginger had done her homework in preparing the text.
There we are. Thank you for these questions. You made me think more deeply about the book. I hope my answers are clear.