WBBT Stop: Elizabeth Knox

ElizabethknoxElizabeth Knox is one of the best writers working today. She’s written several highly acclaimed adult novels, and in the past couple of years published her first work for younger readers with the Dreamhunter Duet, an instant fantasy classic. Her work is strange, exciting, masterful–I could say more, but it would just be pure fangirl squealing, so what say let’s get to the good part instead?

GB: At Shaken & Stirred, the first question is always process porn, because my dear readers love it so. Can you talk a bit about your (vomitous arty term alert) creative process? Your books tend to be incredibly rich with ideas–does it take them awhile to accrue or does that happen during the writing itself?

EK: My books usually start this way. I’ll notice that I’ve begun to think about some character’s possible predicament, a dramatic event, or a setting–place, period, atmosphere. Once I’ve noticed I’m musing I find myself coming up with various proposals, like a kid proposing a bit of action in a game. ‘Let’s say that,’ I think, or, ‘‘What if…’

I usually have a number of ideas for novels circling in a holding pattern. I’m never sure which idea is the first in the queue. And I don’t begin writing till I get what I call ‘a book-starting idea’, the idea that makes it possible for a cluster of notions for a novel to consolidate and start generating their own heat. The book-starting idea is like a starter motor in a car, it makes the big engine of a novel turn over.

Once I start writing the ideas accrue. This is what I think of as ‘consequential invention’. For example, in the Dreamhunter Duet, if there is no water in the Place, then it follows that exploration is limited by how much water explorers can carry. Or–another example–if each freshly caught dream fades as it is repeated then a dreamhunter would have stay awake till their audience has gathered, so therefore dreamhunters would probably take stimulants. I work out all my ‘if this then that’ stuff as I go, and, usually, the logic of the ifs and thens helps whatever odd or contingent idea I’ve started with begin to seem real and necessary.

GB: Your novels cover such a broad spectrum (and yet have an undeniable unity of voice)–did you  ntentionally set out to avoid repeating yourself? Has this presented any issues of readers getting upset when you don’t repeat yourself? It seems to me like readers often don’t appreciate the difficulty of trying new things.

EK: I’m easily bored and, as a consumer of fiction, I have broad tastes, so I guess I’ve just naturally wandered around in various genres. My wanderings aren’t a declaration of any kind, and I often try quite staunchly to avoid some of my own low interests. I say sheepishly to my husband–an editor and person of impeccable taste–that I have, for instance, a good idea for a horror novel. I make this admission as though I’m having an unworthy thought. I lament my lack of grown-up-ness, I look valiantly for other more respectable projects, meanwhile the horror novel proliferates, dark and glowing, till finally I give in and start writing.

I should say that while I’m wringing my hands about my planned horror novel or epic fantasy with zombies my tasteful husband is always encouraging me to write whatever I want to write.

I think all changeable and experimenting writers (in my case helplessly experimental) will at some time have problems with the desire of readers for more of what they’ve previously enjoyed. But there are plenty of readers who are happy to be surprised. I’m always tremendously excited to see what writers like Philip Roth or Hilary Mantel are going to do next. And I don’t think I’m unrepresentative as a reader.

GB: Did you know when you began the Dreamhunter books that they would be aimed at younger readers? I love the fact that they are so sophisticated and complex, and yet still entirely "kid-friendly"–did you approach writing them differently at all?

EK: I’ve been an almost life-long reader of young adult fiction. I had a break between fifteen and twenty-four. After I finished Mary O’Hara’s The Green Grass of Wyoming I couldn’t find another book grown-up enough for me without totally switching over to adult books–which I’d been reading anyway since I was eleven. I came back to young adult fiction when I picked up Diana Wynne Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant. Only weeks later I discovered Margaret Mahy–her books were for me like finding something I didn’t know I already owned.

I always knew I’d have a go at writing a book for young adults. I was only waiting for the right idea. I probably came up with Dreamhunter when I did because I’d been having intense discussions about young adult books with my then eleven-year-old son. Though, how I came to the idea itself is more biographical and to do with a back injury, pain, sleeplessness and the desire for sleep, and many long walks I took through drenched bush with a wonderfully civilised elderly dog–not my own.

While I set out to write a book for younger readers (and hopefully for the readers I already had), when I finished I wasn’t sure that I’d managed to do it. My first editor, Julia Wells at Faber, pointed me in the right direction.

GB: One of the things I admire most about your work is the way you use point of view–especially the omniscient POV in the Dreamhunter Duet. You bold as brass jump between the perspectives of many, many characters, with the effect of creating a larger world that matters, rather than fragmenting the narrative. Please tell me this was as hard to accomplish as it seems like it would be.

EK: I’m glad you like it. It’s a kind of limited eye-of-God, I guess. I usually write in the limited third person. Dreamhunter jumps between people only section by section, but never within sections, between one sentence and the next. The tricky thing about this method is that you have to make it clear to the readers whose point of view you are going to continue to visit–who the main protagonists are. That’s why, in Dreamhunter, the early departures from the points of view of the principals are into the heads of a group of people–like the people watching Laura saying goodbye to her father on the platform of Sisters Beach station–or into the head of a casualty, the ranger who gets run down by the stagecoach.


GB: Did you know what the end of the Duet would be all along? Did it ever give you a moment’s pause, destroying The Place? The series feels self-contained and perfect as is, but is there any possibility of other books set in the same world? Or of more work for younger readers?

When I finished writing Dreamhunter I didn’t know how the story would eventually end, or even how many more books there would be. But by the time I had an editor, I’d begun to work out that the story would take only two books. I called it a ‘duet’ because of the Place’s two voices–Lazarus Hame’s voice, and the Tenth Nown’s, a desperate vengeful voice and a rapt, loving one.

As for how the story ends: when I was editing the first book it began to annoy me that there were two magical things in the story, the Place, and Laura’s sandman Nown. I realised that the story had to answer the basic questions it had raised about how its world worked: "What is the Place?  Where did it come from?  And why?" I decided to answer the questions by being economical with the magic, i.e.: The Place is a Nown

The ending I came up with owed a great deal to the fact I was working on a collaboration between writers and physicists–Are Angels OK, edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan and published by The Royal Society and Victoria University Press. For AAOK I wrote a time travel story called ‘Unobtainium’. I did some reading about time travel and causality and so was able to work out that the time travel stories I’d always loved had a ‘self-consistent universe’ view of time travel, in which what happens is what was always going to happen. The Duet looks like a self-consistent universe time travel story up till the moment that Sandy walks back into Summerfort a few pages from the end of the book. Dreamquake turns out to have the ‘many timelines’ view of causality–and a happy ending.

GB: The second Dreamhunter book is dedicated to the legendary Margaret Mahy and I hear that you’ve actually shot a documentary about her. Can you tell us a little about that and how it came to be? (I can dream that it’ll someday be available on DVD here, right? Or at least pirated!)

EK: The Documentary is called ‘A Tall, Long-Faced Tale’ and was made for TVNZ. I was the writer and interviewer. The interviews were filmed in and around Margaret’s home in Governor’s Bay. The documentary also has interviews with Margaret’s current YA editor, and illustrators Jenny Williams, Quentin Blake, and Steven Kellogg, and others. It has dramatisations of scenes from some of the YA books, and picture book characters popping up and asking questions. The documentary was made for a general audience, but we did manage to get a few knotty questions through to the final cut.

Now I’m waiting for Television New Zealand to tell us when they’re going to screen it, hopefully in the Christmas season.

GB: Recommendations–anything you’ve seen/read/listened to lately that you recommend?

EK: Lately I’ve been reading my way through all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Elizabeth Taylor is a mid-twentieth century English novelist. She’s more like Jane Austen than any other writer; only bleaker.  I recommend Angel and At Mrs Lippencote’s.

Right now I’m reading Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, an 800 page novel set in Russia during WW2. Grossman was a war correspondent. Life and Fate is his great novel. Only one manuscript survived and was smuggled out of Russiain 1980. It is very real, beautiful, wise, and killingly sad.

I recently saw Michael Clayton. I liked the fact the film trusted and revelled in dramatic dialogue. And ah! that George Clooney!

Then there’s TV: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, Ugly Betty…

Visit today’s other WBBT stops:

David Mack at Chasing Ray
Paul Volponi at The Ya Ya Yas
Ellen Emerson White at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy
Jack Gantos at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
David Levithan at Not Your Mother’s Book Club
Micol Ostow at Bildungsroman (who was here yesterday)
Laura Amy Schlitz at Miss Erin
Kerry Madden at Hip Writer Mama
Sherman Alexie at Interactive Reader

4 thoughts on “WBBT Stop: Elizabeth Knox”

  1. I really loved these books — I gulped them down in a single weekend. The fact that we were in the minds of groups and individuals who WEREN’T important to the overall long-run of the story was fascinating. It MUST have been hard, and if I’d tried it, it would have confused everybody, but it showed that she is a master of craft (or, mistress, but that just sounds bad). Thanks for the interview.

    So in the epilogue of Dreamquake, Rose Tiebold had already become Rose Hame…but the only Hame I can think she would have married is Lazarus…and he’s way older than her…not to mention her second cousin…please tell me I’m wrong!

  3. Dreamhunter was utterly boring. I will read Dreamquake only because I want to know what happens. I really did not like the way it was written and did not connect with any of the characters. Oh, how I hope that more about The Place is revealed in Dreamquake. I wonder why Elizabeth Knox decided to make the supposedly horrific nightmares so tame…

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