Elizabeth Knox

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This essay appears in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters


At some point in every writer’s life they’ll find themselves facing the question, ‘Why write?’ Because it can be a lonely slog, and you have to like it. Because it’s always been difficult to make any money, and it’s even more difficult now.

Young writers, those with fire in their bellies, never think, ‘Why write?’ What they think, and should, is, ‘Why not?’ I used to think, ‘Why not?’ Mostly in response to the surprisingly many people confidently prepared to ask, ‘Who are you to think you can do this?’ I got into the healthy, bloody-minded habit of asking, ‘Why not me?’ And the thing is, that however difficult the lonely slog, it becomes normal. I’m aware that mine isn’t a life a lot of writers have. Lots of them have jobs teaching writing. Or have jobs in order to supplement their writing. I’ve been lucky. Also I’ve been sequestered. And that has been for the most part wonderful. But it isn’t easy, and eventually that defiant but joyful, ‘Why not?’ turns into, ‘Why? Why write?’

When I was younger I used to write things down in my journal as if doing so would make some difference. I had an idea of myself as a witness, and that there was something intrinsically useful in my going about the world noticing things. Processing them, and making a record.

When I first read King Lear in the seventh form, I was struck by Lear’s proposal to Cordelia that they be like God’s spies. He is so happy to have found the daughter who loves him. So happy to be with her, that the prospect of being tossed in a jail cell with her only means with her. Sharing the same air with Cordelia is now more precious to Lear than his kingdom, than being a King and having the gift of the kingship, of power; those things he had and failed to use wisely. But this moment in the play is not just a straightforward portrait of a man reunited with his daughter, two people for whom the society of each is sufficient. It is also that, somehow, they’ve been elevated to a position where they belong more to God. If they can’t judge like God judges, they can at least witness like God. Like God and for God. At least until, ‘He who parts us shall bring a brand from heaven / And fire us hence like foxes.’

So, about writing I always thought, ‘At least there’s this being one of God’s spies.’ But when you put pen to paper, even in a journal, you have to imagine that someone might read what you’re writing. You don’t have to imagine they’ll be interested; it’s just being heard, whispering into the box of a book, closing the lid, and leaving it lying around for a very long time in the hope that someone will pick it up, open it, and hear you confiding.

I had the idea that the private act of seeing things and thinking about them was somehow useful to the good order of the universe, and that maybe my small understandings might help facilitate the tendency to things being understood. As if to be unheard, and to not have faith that you can be heard, is entropy. I believed, for a start, in writing my story, or the way I saw things, and then just stories, whatever was in my gift – which is to say, in my power to give.

But time goes on, and things happen that are ordinary, because they happen to pretty much 51 per cent of the population. You become invisible. The first several times that you order a cup of coffee in a cafe and the waitstaff forget your order it’s a great surprise. And then it happens again, and again. And you think, ‘Ah well, I’ve become invisible.’ Now, invisibility has an upside as well as a downside, but that’s a whole other story. But if that commonplace occurrence coincides with an ever shrinking pool of readers, not just for you, but for everybody; with reading being, every year, less a natural activity, then things feel a bit more acute.


I wasn’t a reader till I was eight. My older sister told me stories and we played games – often lying in bed in the dark – so, games made solely of words. Later I was a keen but slow reader who couldn’t write. I kept playing imaginary games, ferociously and voraciously, and holding everything in my head. Persuading people with my voice, and being persuaded by their voices.

My first relationship with story was as spoken narrative, and then as written. I fell from speaking into books. Later, with almost everyone else, I fell out of books into movies and television. And, like many others, I lost some faith in the necessary supremacy of that old wonderful thing of looking at a page, and interpreting the black marks on the white, and creating in my head the world that the words convey. But throughout my fall I retained my faith that reading books, particularly fiction, is better for us. The way a novel makes space inside us because the words have to be turned into a garden, a haunted house, a street, a wasteland; into people, and animals wild and domestic; into weather. The words only do some of the work of making the world. It’s a collaboration: the reader makes the world out of what the words have summoned in them, and that world makes room for itself inside the reader. The reader’s interior grows. And that is good for us. It doesn’t just feel good because it’s pleasurable, it also feels good because it’s exercise at the cellular level. And we do know now that there is such a thing as exercise at the cellular level. Reading fiction is health-giving; it makes you calm and orderly, and a person with fluent feelings. So, I believe in books and reading. But because I’m a pessimist I don’t believe that enough other people do, or can be made to.

My imagination and my faith can’t keep on fighting the good fight. What good is it for me to write books? Well, as my father used to say, ‘Art is inner order.’ And I think that every time I get myself into a state of grace where I stop being a believer who has faith in writing and start being a mystic who has communion with it, then delightful things are possible.

For the past eight or so years I’ve had a fascination with my own ready-to-hand. Stories whose basic world-building, or problematic premise, are derived from episodes of my imaginary game, the game I share with my younger sister, Sara, and for many years shared with a friend. That double ownership is significant. My two most recently published novels, Mortal Fire and Wake, have plots derived from episodes of the game, two each, played with my friend and with my sister. It worked like this: Sara and I were stuck for an idea we could agree on, and I reached for a plot that was tried-and-true because I’d already played it with my friend. I reused the setup. The thing about the games that became Mortal Fire and Wake was that, because I did them twice, I was able to see with greater clarity what possibilities might be produced by the same setup.

The story that became Mortal Fire, in its first iteration, was entirely peopled by adult characters. It was set in an isolated snowbound place. There was a house like the Beast’s castle, without invisible servants, but where the house cleaned and maintained itself and its chattels by mending everything at midnight, and where time, folding back on itself this way, had slowed to a crawl. All the Beast’s castle stuff ended up in the book. There was a magician deemed too powerful to be permitted freedom, who was trapped by a spell that governed both him and the house. Much of that ended up in the book. In its second iteration – the one played with Sara – the story centred much more around a juvenile magic user who, as it turned out, was the only person who could release the magician from the house. The house was situated in an isolated valley, a pastoral paradise. The magician’s jailers were his cousins, now much older than him, and they were keeping him prisoner not just because they were afraid of him, but to punish him for something that happened in a local coal mining disaster decades before. The second story is much closer to the plot of Mortal Fire. However, the novitiate was male, not female, and not a Pacific Islander, and the setting wasn’t my invented South Pacific island continent, Southland, and it wasn’t 1959.

I have no record of either of these games. Even the second one with Sara was before we began recording ourselves; before 2004, when we discovered Skype. Sara has been living in Australia since 1992, so we must have been playing while she was on holiday with me, Fergus and Jack in Golden Bay.

My experiences with Wake and Mortal Fire encouraged me to think that the stories which had excited me, when I first collaboratively made them, might be used like nets to catch the bait running in the river, tasty sustaining ideas I wanted to chew on. Though the stories are collaborative, Sara and I share them out; we get to call dibs on what we think we might use in our writing. Sara currently has a novel with an agent in the States, a fantasy with Mafiosi using demons as muscle. Very Minor Demons is substantially based on an episode of our game. I have a nearly finished young adult book called Kings of this World, a school story and speculative fiction set in Southland. It’s also based on a game, but is much further from its source. With these setups Sara and I have a record of how the whole thing played out, our voices on Skype, making up the stories together.

The trick of making use of these My Food Bag narratives is to recognise what will work in a novel as opposed to an imaginary game. Imaginary games have heat and immediacy, their worlds have to be solid enough for their characters to inhabit them, and their plots can’t have gaping holes. Their plots evolve, and don’t tend to tidy themselves as they go. We’re very good at remembering who knows what, but can be a little extravagant with psychology if it’s more productive of drama. What we can pull off in the heat of a played moment won’t necessarily work in a novel. So using a game as the basis for a novel means you have to have the judgement to go ‘this’ but not ‘that’.

Writing Kings of this World I was very grateful for the play of ideas in the original game. Ideas articulated in conversations between the characters, which were naturally spirited because Sara and I were also arguing things out – principally whether or not people are inherently good. But the plot was a dog’s breakfast, so I had to start again from the ground up. I had to ask myself, ‘What are these kids doing when they’re getting to know each other? Having Jane Austen’s Emma-like assumptions about what’s going on around them, and nurturing each other’s willingness to interfere in people’s lives?’ I had all that, so was it possible to germinate a plot out of misunderstandings, accidents and mischances. But if I did that I’d be writing a comedy, and it wasn’t enough for me to be writing a comedy when I wanted to write a thriller. A thriller with a speculative fiction plot which was also a Southland book. I had to come up with a thriller plot that wouldn’t just accommodate the comedy, but somehow rise out of it, out of gossip and conniving, and youthful high spirits. I was doing pretty well, but then I made an injurious decision that Kings needed to be a short book, and the first of two, so that I could get a sale quickly and help pay for the new garage and terrace and deck we were building.

Then, as soon as I’d declared that the book was part one of two, I realised that the material I had for a second book wasn’t going to shape itself into a novel-like entity. Shortly I’ll take Kings apart, put it back together again and finish it, as book one of one.

Anyway, I can’t help but think that apart from mistakes fostered by pressing financial concerns most of my difficulties were produced by my being like a frugal home handyman who tells himself that, since he got the demolition windows for next to nothing, the kitchen he’s trying to build must shape itself around them. And then, once his extension is well underway, the home handyman finds he has insoluble difficulties with his indoor–outdoor flow.

What happened to me is what happens to the person who starts with a given, and then has to shape the whole thing, and its needs, around something they already have. My method might have worked with Wake and Mortal Fire, but with those novels I didn’t have enchanting pre-existing voices whispering their jokes and arguments in my ear.

So – with the demolition windows problem, the having-a-record problem, it is still possible to figure out what bits of lively business you can use, and what reject. But that’s far less of a challenge than establishing the integrity of the whole picture. Your characters may be delightfully alive, but characters appear in what happens, and if you change what you must of what happens, you are inevitably going to alter the way in which those characters reveal themselves.

I have a lot of sympathy for the scriptwriters of rebooted franchises, and admiration for those who do it well. Take Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix. How do you make sense of the manly man in Harlem in the 21st-century, whose standard curse is ‘Sweet Christmas!’? Well – you have him trained mercilessly by his friend the barber’s adherence to a swear jar in an effort to keep the language of the street out of his establishment. It’s fascinating to witness the ingenuity of writers coping with their own famous franchise’s demolition windows.

In the end I think the major problem I had in using a given, even one with verve, and sturdy story legs, is that doing so didn’t leave any room for other things that would have turned up if I wasn’t so wrapped up in the problem of having the whole room look right with the house.

Fortunately for the plus column of the ‘Why write?’ ledger I’m having a very different experience with the adult novel I’m now near to finishing.

The Absolute Book turned up, like Dreamhunter and The Vintner’s Luck, out of the ether, and is using me to get itself written.


In his 1993 Listener review of my second novel Treasure Brian Boyd says: ‘Knox seems a realist by nature but a metaphysician by inclination, a magpie who can swoop on glittering detail but would prefer to be a Phoenix.’ Later he kindly and privately qualified his remark: ‘The magpie and Phoenix was an image with a semi-private echo of Isaiah Berlin on the hedgehog (who knows one big thing), and the fox (who knows many little things): Berlin compared Tolstoy to a brilliant fox who thought it was more important to be a hedgehog. Not bad company for you.’

Perhaps what I know as a writer – after many novels – is that the one big thing can only appear as a dark place in the sky, discernible because of the otherwise – the myriad visible stars.

Besides, it seems to me that, in order to write many novels it might be useful to be a bird of the Corvidae family – that is, a magpie, a crow, a jay, a rook, a jackdaw. Or a raven. Each novel has a different thing it wants, and needs to do. It’s a centrifuge that mixes. It’s a centrifuge that separates. It’s a spinning body creating its own gravity.


There’s a lot of talk about ‘finding your own fictional voice’, because so many of our ideas about writing fiction are shaped by the kindly pedagogical concerns of creative writing classes. But you don’t find your voice, you find the voice of that particular book, of a first book, a second book, a fourth, a tenth and a thirteenth. Each has its own tone it wants to take. And if I was trying to be helpful I could talk about tone. But beyond tone and voice there’s a quality that feels more telling to me when I’m trying to define the virtues of books that I’m really excited by, or when I recognise in my own work a necessity to the creation that isn’t coming out of my interest in the characters, or the plot, or the kind of language I’m using, but is more simply a property of the book’s vibe of being alive. By that I mean not just how Elizabeth Knox the writer feels about human existence, but how the untethered, reactive, feeling entity, who is making it all up, feels at that particular moment, the moment of beginning the book, the moments of continuing the book. The book that is not a calibration of existence, but one day with a certain kind of weather, a memorable whole, like the interval between waking up and going to sleep. What I think I find in the novels I’m most excited by, and what I’m after in my own work, is a vibe of being alive that belongs generally to – well – I want to say each writer, but of course not all writers have one. Perhaps each considerable writer has one. And by considerable I don’t mean literary, I mean a writer whose vitality has been transmitted to their work. I can make compelling arguments for the vibe of life of Lee Child, or Georgette Heyer, just as I can for Hillary Mantel, Elizabeth Gaskell or Margaret Mahy. This vibe of life is one of the reasons we choose to be constant readers of certain writers. We like what they do, but we also like the way they make us see the world, or feel about it. We like how they make us feel when we are in their world, and therefore how we feel once we’ve finished the book, and are returned to our everyday, with something about our sensibilities, our thought processes, our grit and appetite, altered. That’s my explanation of why we love and cleave to particular authors: their vibe of life. But it isn’t a satisfactory explanation of what, if you’re a novelist, you’re looking for in each of your own books as it yields its purpose is to you. I think of that thing as the book’s aura: borrowing from the new-age. A glow coming off something, which belongs to its life and its character, and tells us something about where it’s been, even if it’s never been anywhere. A book begins, and it hasn’t been anywhere. Sometimes a book begins whose degree of never having been anywhere before its appearance feels as if it’s in the territory of Annunciation and Nativity.

I am reminded of the afternoon when our son Jack finally appeared in my hospital room at Wellington Women’s. He’d been in neonatal for two days, and because of blood loss and my healing caesarean incision, I’d only visited him to breastfeed. He turned up very suddenly, at dinner-time, because, while eating her dinner, his mother had begun sobbing that she wanted her baby. And then his father started crying too. I figure we must have been overheard. Jack appeared twenty minutes later, in his plastic cradle. They put him between my bed and Fergus’s chair, and we proceeded to get cricks in our necks just staring at him. One thing we couldn’t take our eyes off was his quizzical and daunting single eyebrow lift. His left eyebrow would go up as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was being presented with. And Fergus remarked that he thought he had cultivated that expression himself over many years. But Jack was born with it. And perhaps Fergus had been too, and might that not mean that his character was shaped by his facial expression rather than the other way around?

There is the idea that a soul comes into the world with the body, that the soul is unstained, but somehow perfectly formed, although the child still has to grow as a person in the world. That idea may be a bit of Western dualism, but at least to some extent it rises out of observation: the marvel of being surprised by a grandparent’s expression on a toddler’s face. Not just the shadow of an expression, but a thing so powerfully reminiscent that it is as if the expression has arrived containing the whole texture of the grandparent’s life and experience.

There are books that, when you’re their author, seem to appear in the same way, stainless and finished, rather than formed in the forge of writing, as if you, the writer, hadn’t sat there with all the hard labour and hard thinking of making the book’s body. No – the book arrives trailing clouds of glory as if pencil on paper have summoned hitherto invisible realities that want to organise themselves out of nothing, using a writer’s own character and experience.


From very early in my life I had a delight in how things were connected. Connected in the world by use and influence, and how I was able to connect them myself in my head. I think my delight had something to do with my puzzlement at my stupidity when it came to writing – that is, writing as opposed to reading. I’m certain now that I had dysgraphia of the dyslexic type. I could read, and comprehend what I’d read, and verbally answer questions about what I’d read, and I could read out loud, but I could scarcely write. It was natural for all my too many primary schools to assume that, since I could read, my writing could only be laboured and abysmal because I was lazy, stubborn and uncooperative. It was the 1960s, and I was a girl, so pains were never taken. For example, when in standard two I was asked to produce two pages on the life cycle of a butterfly, I produced two pages of two words per line, in columns down the left and right hand side of the page, the teacher decided I was being either insolent or indolent. But it was like this: whenever I had a pen my hand, I also had a great glass wall in front of me. I was all in and no out so, although I was reading and thinking and making connections, whatever I learned I had to hold in my head, like water in cupped hands, waiting on the cup, the bucket, the lakebed.

My mind now pretty much works like every one else’s, but is shaped by this early intense practice of recognising how information connected up so that it might support itself instead of requiring me to support it by recording all its facets as they revolved in empty space. My mind has a very strong habit of seeing patterns, because a pattern is easier to hold in your head than its pieces.

Stories have legacies in our limbic systems. Something that is there for any storyteller to use. The audience doesn’t need to know about earlier appearances and interpretations of a particular story – of an invisible monster, a human-shaped monster, a charming human-shaped heart-usurping monster, a monster made by an ambitious scientist, a monstrous God who never answers prayers, or the animal who talks and still curls up beside you like an ordinary cat, but who isn’t there the moment it’s most wanted. Of course it’s nice for the audience to know – to have the deep, nuanced, textured experience of the story because of all the connections it makes. Constant readers, or watchers, people with a degree of appetite and experience and a good memory, get stuff when you give it to them. Those people know that they haven’t learned most of what they know in order of its appearance in the world. They understand they might have met the monster in a joke, before meeting it in its myth.

The great and ancient beast we encounter in a television programme might owe much to H G Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, but the energy of that creature is also the inheritance of all people in a house or a landscape with older occupants. It’s our sense of how recently we’ve been the pinnacle predator, and how tenuously we are a pinnacle predator whenever we’re by ourselves. It’s our short period of remove from the time when we had no news of what was on the other side of the river, or why the mountain in whose shadow we lived would sometimes growl and glow. We may have left much of that behind us – or at least know what’s choking us when the wall of ash washes over us. Yet as surely as being in fear and uncertainty can leave its mark on a developing child’s DNA so that child’s children will inherit a poorly extinguished anxiety, then our stories, and our response to them, have been shaped by all those years of not knowing what it was we could hear at night, behind the wind.

I first met one of my favourite monsters in a joke. At Christmas when I was nine someone gave my mother a card with the three wise men on it, two of them pink with anger and embarrassment, saying to the third, who was holding one end of a rope: ‘We said frankincense . . .’ Then, when the card opened, there on the end of the rope was a louring, greenish monster with bolts in his neck.

I didn’t get the joke. But I knew it was a joke, and a story. Seeing my intrigue Mum explained Frankenstein’s monster. And, since she liked her facts straight, and was the kind of mother who took pains to make sure they were, she also explained how Frankenstein was the man who made the monster, not the monster, who had no name, and how lots of people got that wrong. I’d already realised there was some connection between the monster and the Gruesome Twosome of the Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races, a cartoon about a cross-country race, where the Gruesome Twosome drove a car that looked like a haunted house. One of the Twosome was a massive, monster-like individual with a bowl haircut and a turtleneck sweater – a kind of 60s hipster Frankenstein’s monster. I made that connection. I began to build up a concordance of the story. A concordance which in time assembled itself in order of provenance – in this case Mary Shelley’s book, a product of a ghost story challenge at the Villa Diodati with Shelley and Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and Dr Polidori. First there was the book, and then later appearances, canon and otherwise and, as with all my concordances, the information was also in order of what mattered most to me. I did that throughout my childhood and teens, and retained my habit of accepting the premises of an invention, or at least waiting to see how things might fit together. It was clear to me that there were no lame ideas. If an idea was limping its shoes might arrive at any moment. Its shoes, its horse and carriage, its rocket ship, its wings. Which isn’t to say that the adult me hasn’t thrown up her hands in disgust when faced with a story that is half-baked or inconsistent or derivative – derivative rather than open to influence – or, worst of all, a story that stacks its dice.

An acceptance of premises is the absolutely necessary prerequisite of the willing suspension of disbelief, that which lets us enjoy stories and not be those people who like to say, with an uneasy superiority, that they only read non-fiction. Because they ‘want to learn something’.

It’s the existence of all my concordances that have determined my mode of operation as a writer, how I like to take a thing, or more often several things, with the charge of a mythical legacy, and use them to my own purposes. Because they are attractive to me and I want to pick them up and handle them. Because they are meaningful to me and I want to get into conversation with them. Because they are comforting to me and I want to slip them under my pillow when I sleep.


So. Why write? When it’s often very difficult?

Because if you’re lucky, and you keep at it long enough, and honestly, if you stay by the sundial, and don’t chase any of the things beckoning you from the ends of the avenues – like your own insufficient idea of fame; or money; or the approval of your family and admiration of your friends; or the admiration of your community, or arts funding bodies, or the public, whoever they are – if you stay by the sundial, the sun will come, will show you your shadow, and give you the time. Then, if you’re very lucky, it might give you your Absolute Book.






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