Interview: Elizabeth Smither talks about The Piano Girls
Elizabeth Smither has published six collections of short stories, six novels, eighteen collections of poetry, as well as journals and memoirs. She was poet laureate (2001–03) and was awarded an Hon. D.Litt by Auckland University in 2004 and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. Her latest poetry collection, Night Horse, won the Ockham NZ Book Award for poetry in 2018. Elizabeth talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about ‘The Piano Girls’.
‘The Piano Girls’ is a collection of 20 short stories which Steve Braunias has described as ‘stories that immediately take you into their closely observed world of good, decent New Zealanders going about their emotional lives in chaos’. I wasn’t inviting this chaos; it’s just something that occurs in our lives because we are not totally in control. It is far easier to find a short story in our lives than a novel – we can see the amazing things that happen even to the most regulated people.
What inspired you to write this book?
Things observed, stories unfolding, curiosity about the human condition, snippets overheard, things puzzled about, sometimes just the tiniest incident or sighting.
What research was involved.
Heaps of research, especially music and conductors. But also cats, hotels, breast size, ballet, school days, flambé cooking. There can be more research in a single short story than a novel.
What was your routine or process while writing this book?
I wrote slowly, 250 words a day, a snail’s total, which was easy to achieve. I never knew where any sentence would lead or what a character would do in any given situation. When a story was complete, I picked up another exercise book and began the next.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Not a song: Chopin’s mazurkas at full volume. In honour of the piano girls and their
competitive recital in honour of their Polish mother.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this collection.
A sense of fun. Chaos doesn’t always mean bad. Things from left field. Happenstance.
If you had to pick one story, what would be the one that is the most special to you personally, and why?
Possibly ‘The Hotel’. A wealthy young man takes his girlfriend who imagines he is going to propose to a posh hotel (alias the Chateau Tongariro) in order to give her a final good time before he breaks up with her. It still gives me a feeling of tristesse.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Wine and dinner with friends...
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why.
‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. A robot who, despite her limitations, proves nicer than the little girl who owns her.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m trying to write some novellas – another mysterious form – and much longer than a short story.