Keri Hulme: Of Death and Fishing
By Andrew Johnston
Keri Hulme's first novel is probably New Zealand's most famous. Now her second is becoming famous too - for not having appeared yet. Evening Post books page editor Andrew Johnston went down to Okarito to find out what's happening.
THREE years ago Keri Hulme thought her second novel, Bait, was finished. After the extraordinary success of The Bone People, publishers were rather keen to get their hands on this one. Hulme signed contracts with three: Picador in London, Viking in New York and one in Holland. But the book proved to have a life of its own, she says.
'I'm just trying to remember the name of the animal that climbs up its own tail with extreme ease, a bit like a possum - well there was that kind of effect with Bait. And - bless my publishers, they've been amazingly generous - I do feel derelict in my obligations. I've learned something not to do ever again, and that is sign contracts before you're absolutely sure something is finished.'
Hulme has sent her publishers two thirds of the book - it's the rest that has been proving elusive. Visiting her at her Okarito home, where she is immersed in a lifestyle and a way of working that has its own peculiar rhythm, you're inclined to believe her when she says it's the book's own unusual demands, rather than the weight of worldwide expectation, that has made finishing the novel so difficult.
'It's been engaging and difficult in as much as Bait is really a story about death and a meditation on death - alleviated by a lot of fishing - and unfortunately, during the intensive period of working on it, several people whom I liked very much died off, and it became personal in a way I didn't suspect it would be.'
Then there's the Other Novel factor. Before number two had left her desk, she started number three.
'I've started on an associated novel, On Shadowside . . . I didn't exactly lose interest in Bait itself, but got more interested in the other, then came back to Bait and discovered I actually had three different endings for it. . . '
So now she's sorting out the ending. She did have a deadline of October 31, which her New Zealand publisher Joan Mackenzie says was then shifted to November. Hulme herself says 'My working deadline is literally the end of this year, but it's going to be done long before that.'
So can we tell the Post's readers that Bait is on its way? 'Don't hold your breath, as my mother always says. But yeah, it is.' The message is still a mixed one: perhaps the novel should be called Wait.
The story of The Bone People hardly needs retelling. Written over a 16-year period, the novel was published in 1983 by the tiny Spiral Collective after having been turned down in its raw state by several major publishers. It won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for fiction, the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and then in 1985 the ultimate accolade, the Booker Prize.
So naturally her readers - and Hulme has an extraordinarily diverse and loyal international audience - will be curious to see whether she can do it again. One might be forgiven for thinking that the burden of their expectations has contributed to Bait's delay. But Hulme says she must please herself before others get to see the book.
'Without wanting to sound extremely egotistical, ultimately I'm writing for myself, it's got to satisfy me, and while I am very engaged with reader response one way or the other, it's not the wholly determining element, so I'm not writing for expectations, expectations however inflated they may be.
'The other thing is that I've been fortunate enough to have four other books published in the interim, and so I figure it's not a stand or fall thing. Bait is number seven, not number two.
'The part that I'm going to find really interesting is finding whether something that is very very different from The Bone People works. I know it works with a small group, but they tend to be very involved with me, so I can't totally rely on their objectivity.'
That small group consists of Hulme's family and one of her next-door neighbours. Whe she feels it's ready, she gives them a chunk of the book.
'I find that at a certain stage of writing you're no longer objective with it and you need somebody else's eyes. I'm lucky, I've got family who love reading, and who tolerate my kind of writing.'
Hulme's extended family looms large in her conversation. She is single, has no children and lives alone at Okarito; during a panel discussion at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington in March she said she's decided to stay that way, for the sake of her work.
But she is passionately involved in the lives of her mother, her siblings and their children, to the extent that she is in the process of buying a second house, 'somewhere in Canterbury - I'm not saying where,' so that she can see more of her nieces and nephews as they grow up. They range in age from three weeks to late teens, she says, and she writes for them as much as for anyone else.
When Hulme talks about her family, you realise how different she is from the public persona. Over the past nine years Keri Hulme has been turned into 'Keri Hulme', an almost cliched collection of tics and gestures - and partly with her co-operation, it must be said. But a writer so much in the spotlight can hardly do otherwise, and the process does leave her room to be utterly herself, especially in her own environment - the book-lined living room of her Okarito house, and the West Coast landscape. (It's been a bad season for whitebait so far, too.)
She is a shy, fiercely intelligent, insatiably curious person, whose 'life of the mind' is an extremely rich one. And although she has published four books since, and has been working on Bait for a decade, it is in talking about The Bone People that the depth of her curiosities and concerns emerges most strikingly.
That novel was criticised by some for its mystically uplifting ending, and by others for its violence. Both aspects - a notion of art as redemptive, and a fascination with violence - are inseparable in Hulme's work, and are strong clues as to what makes her tick.
So does she think books should help save us from ourselves?
'I'm well aware that you can write things that will move people at a visceral level that are engaging and they can also be quite corrupting. They can also induce hopelessness and alienation. Why bother to do it?
'You can send messages to people, people you will never meet, have never met. I've had, mainly from that novel but also from stories and poetry, literally thousands upon thousands of letters . . . I don't want to send messages that cause people to go and jump off cliffs.
'I'm not saying that I want to write Pollyanna tales, because life isn't like that, life can be extremely nasty. I also don't want - now this will sound very old-fashioned - I don't want to corrupt people. I am familiar with things that I never thought I would be familiar with, from spending five years on the Indecent Publications Tribunal . . .
'You can examine the alienated, you can examine the sad, you can examine the negative, but you must have a balance, otherwise it can sort of become a small bomb you're tossing.'
By the same token, the violence against the child Simon in The Bone People sickened some readers so much they couldn't continue with the book.
'We're capable of the unspeakable,' Hulme says 'and we're capable of the truly glorious and compassionate. And it's necessary not to ignore either.'
Hulme admits to a fascination with violence, and says it arrived very early on, being told quite casually at Moeraki about the massacre there, that began with a children's wrestling match - and a bloody feud that began when someone wore someone else's cloak. 'And I thought, that's part of here, and not only that, but that was my relations doing that, thank you very much. It wasn't remote, I couldn't be uninvolved with it, it was right there in front of me.
'I suppose the other thing,' she says, 'is that I'm quite easily shocked in some ways. Not so much now - I'm no longer appalled by human cruelty or rampant greed or our amazing talent for destruction, but for a long time it appalled me nearly speechless, not least because I could recognise situations where I'd be in there boots and all. There's no way I'm a pacifist.'
On Shadowside, the new novel that has sprung out of Bait - and which she will return to as soon as Bait is finished - features a whole race of people who are (almost) always pacifists; violence, it seems, will be examined once again, but from the other side.
The novel will also allow Hulme to explore more of her own ideas about human spirituality. While she is keen not to be associated with anything 'New Age waffly or frothy,' Hulme has a deep and abiding interest in human spirituality in all its manifestations.
'I am fascinated by this very odd human need for the Other, and the fact that there are some people - and I think they are as rare as geniuses in any other field - people who are mystics. They're exploring something, they're encountering something, that most of us cannot . . . '
As many do, Hulme met mysticism as a Catholic: she even thought about becoming a nun. 'When I was 16, having taken instruction for nearly two years, I converted to Catholicism, and I was quite a devout Catholic. In fact I explored the possibility of becoming an enclosed contemplative, because that side of life did intrigue me - until I was 26, and then I started thinking things through in a more objective sense, and discovered there were huge logical flaws, and I obviously didn't have a true Catholic faith because it was very easily destroyed!
'It was a very strange period, in that there were huge changes in my family group, but while there were obviously disappointments there were also wonderful gifts, not least being introduced to Catholic mystics . . . for a long time the working title for The Bone People was `Strange Islands, Silent Music', which is a direct quotation from St John of the Cross.'
Hulme's most recent life-changing experience, though, was of a more down-to-earth nature.
'Last year I fell off my balcony and broke my pelvis . . . I had this period of thinking, did I want to continue to earn my living as a writer or should there be something else I should be doing - planting trees, or becoming a consummate fisher or something useful . . .
'I decided that what I really want to do - without over-inflating myself, or overstating the importance of this - was to have some part in telling stories, in clothing things in words, that would mean something to future generations, and I was particularly thinking about younger ones in the family.
'That means that regardless of what happens, you're not a waste, you've got some stake in the future, as it were. Even the very shaky stake of sounds, of images. To me that's extremely important.
'It's like the braided river systems on the Canterbury plains: there's all kinds of streams, making a pattern. Some of them are very deep and very important and others, pleasant in their own way, these little sidestreams and creeks and confluences . . . I'd be happy to be part of a sidestream, as long as I'm part of the pattern.
© Andrew Johnston