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Interview: Suzanne Ashmore talks about Meltwater

Suzanne Ashmore was born in New Plymouth, under the shadow of the mountain, grew up on the shaky ground of Christchurch, and now lives in Auckland, looking out across the shining waters of the Waitamata Harbour. After completing a Teacher’s Certificate and a Diploma in Speech / Language Therapy at Canterbury, she worked with severely language impaired adults and children for twenty-eight years. With the urge for a mid-life career change, Suzanne began a degree in Fine Arts at Elam, graduating with an MFA (hons), then worked as an artist until embarking on writing her autobiographic novel Meltwater. Suzanne talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Meltwater.

Meltwater is an autobiographic novel set in New Zealand between the 1950’s and present day, relating the story of Elizabeth and the thirteen separate alter-parts living inside her, each with their own voice, each with a story that has been silenced, waiting a lifetime to be told. Based on my life living with Dissociated Identity Disorder as a result of childhood trauma, Meltwater is a journey of disintegration and renewal and hope.

What inspired you to write this book?

Inspiration for the book came from being involved in the therapeutic process, when, in my early 60’s, I realized the linking of my forgotten story fragments was like a mystery unfolding; small dramas, crimes, aspects of a psychological thriller, all woven together from the scraps of memory that fell into place like a puzzle, as I delved like an archaeologist into the past.

I also took inspiration from Audre Lorde, who believed in the transformation of silence into language. ‘… that what is most important must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’

What research was involved?

In essence, the writing involved thirteen years of research in the form of therapy, into the largely forgotten or suppressed, multilayered narratives of my thirteen alter-parts. And road trips around New Zealand, immersing myself in the emotive power of the Southern Alps and alpine lakes, Taranaki, Tongariro National Park and Northland beaches.

What was your routine or process when writing the book?

The writing process was a bit like an archaeological dig or detective work. Individual pieces of evidence were written up collated and fitted up against each other. Some weeks I wrote obsessively without a break, then I’d have a week off to reread review and recover, before beginning the next section. The difficulty lay in constructing a cohesive narrative from a series of dissociated fragments, then finding the linkages between, and fitting them all within the ‘narrative arc’ required of a novel. The process involved combining a raw energy with the lyrical delicacy of evocative prose.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Probably songs from ‘The Moody Blues’ album, Days of future passed. Then of course, Leonard Cohen’s, Suzanne and Sisters of mercy.

And we’d have to fit in some of Enya’s moody instrumental and song tracks, especially, Long Long Journey.

What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?

A: I enjoyed working with nuances of language, using words to evoke mood and place, desire and emotions. Then most importantly, I delighted in giving each of my silenced alter-parts their own voices, and seeing their stories link, interlace and integrate, making us whole.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

A: I celebrated with a glass of excellent Champagne, then a fabulous book launch with all my friends.

What is your favourite book you have read this year and why?

I would have to say that Milkman by Anna Burns, was my favorite book for this year, for its relentless voice and, excruciating detail. Whole paragraphs seem to be related on a single breath. I embraced the uneasy confusion of relationships and encounters, of misunderstandings, paranoia and conspiracies, all portrayed within a remarkable mix of intimacy, detachment, despair and humour.

What is next on the agenda for you?

I’ve always wanted to combine my art and writing. Tucked away in a cupboard somewhere, I have several children’s books already written and in need of illustrating. Now that could be a more relaxing project for the year following. I also have a young-adults, historical time-slip novel, set in the Central Plateau, switching between present day and 1918, which I began a couple of years ago and I’d love to return to that. So there’s two very enticing projects to choose from.


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