• NZ Booklovers

Interview: Emma Neale talks about The Pink Jumpsuit

Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her novel Fosterling (Vintage, Random House [NZ], 2011) was short-listed for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011. Her novel Billy Bird (Vintage, Penguin Random [NZ], 2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize, Ockham NZ Book Awards 2017 and long-listed in the International Dublin Literary Award 2018. Until recently, Emma edited the literary journal, Landfall. She works as a freelance editor, and co-supervises one creative/critical PhD candidate at the University of Otago. Emma talks to NZ Booklovers about The Pink Jumpsuit.

Tell us a little about The Pink Jumpsuit.

This collection gathers short stories and flash fiction together; many of the individual pieces borrow from my own experiences and then ‘up-cycle’ them into fiction — either elaborating on mysteries unsolved; imagining what might have been; or using the autobiographical details the way a film crew might use a real place as a set. Others are total fabrication: fiction through and through. To quote the blurb, ‘the tales range from the true to the tall… there are confidence tricksters, compulsive liars, emotional turncoats, the pulse of jumbled childhood memory still felt in adult life, the weird metamorphosis of fantasy hardening into reality. From everyday realism to the speculative and imaginary, recurring motifs in these stories (the scientist father; the mystery of identity even within families; what we can’t know about even those closest to us) toy with the boundaries between memory and the unknown: the blending of the real and the invented.

What inspired you to write this collection?

I think the real beginning of this collection was when I was lucky enough to get a commission for a two-part story one summer, from a journalist, Dave Loughrey, of the Otago Daily Times. He had seen some of my other work and wondered if I might like to give a short newspaper serial a shot. I didn’t want to tell him that I didn’t really write short stories; that I’d always been a little afraid of trying them, despite being a keen reader of short fiction. With a slight feeling of desperation, I launched into writing ‘In confidence’, which was both a lie and a pun, perhaps, as I wasn’t feeling confident at all, but I was telling myself to talk the talk. To try to make the writing as vivid and credible as I could, as quickly as I could (because I was writing to deadline), I called on some of the richest, happiest, most sensorily clear memories of childhood that I have — and leapt off that springboard into a weird parallel life. The commission was hugely useful, as I had to think about structure: about how to write a story with a hinge, a precipice, at the mid point. I loved having that opportunity and I’ll forever be grateful to Dave.

After that two-part piece was published, I dabbled now and then in flash fiction, but then I found that my time as Landfall editor meant that I was more deeply immersed in reading greater numbers of high quality short fiction than I had before. Between issues, I tried to make sure that my critical sense stayed sharp and current, so I’d read top quality international short fiction in the hiatus. I began listening to New Yorker short fiction podcasts whenever I could, and reading anthologies, and so on, whenever I could as well. It was inevitable, I guess, that I’d want to start singing along, or trying out the form I was immersing myself in. Stories just kept cropping up each time I’d try to rework the novel I was ostensibly trying to rewrite at the time...

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I often wrote in a kind of hot spill as soon as an issue of Landfall was delivered to the printer, and then I would just whittle and whittle and whittle, rework and recast, over weeks and months, until something felt ready. That said, there are at least four pieces here that date from years ago: ‘Old, New, Borrowed, Blue’ dates from before I had my first baby, I think; so the process has taken about 20 years, if I count it diligently.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this collection?

I loved the feeling of a destination drawing me along, or hovering, on the borders of my consciousness, each time a new idea arrived: and I loved being liberated from all the backstory that feels more necessary in a novel. A story has to be so compressed that you don’t have to give all the explanations that might seem crucial to support the architecture of a novel. And I loved being able to flit in and out of different genres; returning to some of my earliest reading territory, science fiction and fantasy, even if it is only in a light, glancing way here and there, rather than through the detailed world building of complex narrative universes.

If you had to choose, what story is the most special to you, and why?

Having to choose is so hard, because each story has its own emotional core, and serves a different purpose; I guess the point of a collection is to speak to the way our moods and experiences shift and alter constantly … but I suppose I’d choose the title piece ’The Pink Jumpsuit’ It feels as if there I’ve articulated something about the power of other arts (in this case, paintings) to simultaneously carry their own stories, and yet also to evoke highly subjective memories and responses; I have finally managed to write about my parents’ relationship in a way that is honest both about the love and the painful sense of being trapped between two very different outlooks and personalities; and I’ve managed to tackle at least one of my past brush-ins with overt and covert misogyny. The fibres of each aspect (family life, social expectations outside the family, body image, sexism, how art in turn grows from and questions these) all feel deeply entwined, and I love the way the very form of a piece like this, which is part-memoir, part-essay, part-autofiction, can both express that entanglement, but also start to tease apart the strands.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I suppose the first thing was to send it to the publisher!! Sometimes pressing send, and then collapsing into the child-pose or the corpse-pose on the study floor feels like the best celebration ever. The first physical copies arrived on the day Dunedin/Ōtepoti went into Level 2 lockdown, so my bubble of four was able to buy takeaways to celebrate. I also received three great hugs, and some grins, from my family. My husband said, ‘You did it!’ He’s witnessed how many setbacks there are in a writer’s head, even before a manuscript gets out of the laptop and into a publisher’s in-box.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

It’s a hard tie for first favourite between Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghost in the Throat. Both books really churned me up. The Mirror Book has some perceptive, ‘re-integrating’ commentary on the psychology of the child-parent relationship at the end which I found useful and healing after the very tempestuous, embattled ride of the first parts of the book. There was a vast amount to process about charismatic, powerful, half-absent fathers, misogyny, motherhood, partner violence, self-destructiveness as a response to fear. And so much more. It’s brilliant. Ghost in the Throat is a beautiful, hauntingly braided account of early motherhood, loss, desire, writing, poetry, historical research — but its treatment of the maternal drive and female erasure - both political and ‘self-willed’ - had me in teary, mouth-chewing tangles. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has ever been obsessed with a writer from another era; and to any parent who has tried to maintain a thread of creativity, or any intellectual thought, through the flood of needs and responsibilities of other people.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have a lot of freelance editing work to do before next year; but at the start of 2022 I have blocked off three months, when I’ll use a Creative New Zealand grant to write the first draft of a collection of poems. I also have a novel that I’m rewriting from the blank page — although at the moment, I just want to kick it out of the house, tell it to find another flatmate and get a job, because it’s taken advantage of my patience with it for too long! Lazy bag of loose threads...

Quentin Wilson Publishing