Sue Hancock / Q&A
An absorbing story of youth, secrets, nature and the agony of relationships, brand new novel The Peastick Girl has just hit the shelves here in NZ. No tracked down its author, award-laden Kiwi writer and citizen-of-the-world Susan Hancock, for a peep inside her clever head.
Could you explain the title of your latest novel? One of my readers wrote to me and said he couldn’t put the book down, that he read it in two great gasps, but that he still never understood the first page. Everyone always says ‘The what?’ when they hear the title, and I always say, ‘It’s explained on the first page.’
It's about a split in the personality of one of the three sisters; in the book you find out why it happened and who it happened to. Basically there are two magical figures who inhabit one of the characters, the Red Queen - who rages and howls in the wind (Something had happened to the Red Queen that made her howl like that….Her eyes bulged, the wind blew her face away) - and the silent and fragile girl who is kind of like a cabbage butterfly fluttering over the peas that are growing up the peastick frames. She is much closer to the natural world than she is to human life, and it’s her love of beauty that saves her.
What initially inspired the book? This novel started out as a single image of three sisters sitting on a beach on the Kapiti coast, one warm summer evening. (So it obviously wasn’t last summer.) I had a sense of the three of them right away, even their names, though it took a while for their surname to float into my mind. So the novel started with the characters, not really with an idea or a plot. I always feel as if I met them rather than invented them - Mollie, Teresa and Cass, sitting on the beach under a sky as blue as any remembered sky ever is, with the light of the sea playing up into it.
How will young New Zealanders identify with the central characters? I think we come from a fantastic country. And I think New Zealanders, especially the savvy generation who are in their twenties and thirties now (the age of most of this novel's characters) know this. We know how remarkable it is out here; we see our country through the eyes of people who travel here; we know how independent our culture is and we know how to live a metropolitan life. There’s a lot of activity in this book - huge social scenes open up, people go off into the mountains or ride motorbikes through the Rimutaka gorge or hold parties in town, and they all TALK! They gossip, they agonise about their relationships - they’re mostly in very shifting relationships, they’re seeking something. Some of them have a clearer idea about this than do others.
What are some key questions dealt with in the narrative? The plot revolves around a pattern of secrets. It's also about the ways some people get hold of the reins of a number of lives and manipulate others to the point of pretty serious damage. It’s about revenge and retribution and treachery. It’s about witnessing. One of the characters, a Russian (who, like the Maoris, comes from a broken history) says that no matter how hard you try to hide the truth, there is always someone who knows.
Do you feel the novel belongs to one genre in particular? Let me turn that around a bit and say that the two novels I most admire from the twentieth century are Ulysses by James Joyce and Women in Love by DH Lawrence. I admire them because of their range and because they don’t try to tidy things up. And they don’t create some special voice for fiction, they don’t have so much formal narrative as narrative presented through the consciousness of the characters. They take a lot of risks; no reader can ever quite wrap up the reading experience of Ulysses, for example. I love that; the risk taking, the sense of horizons beyond the book, the closeness to characters, the crazy digressions – they’re wild novels. I don’t like ‘Tame’.
How was the Kapiti coast setting integral to the plot? Well, it’s timeless; things out there are held in a very still, clear light. There are great households out there, and more of the novel's communal and social scenes are set there than in Wellington. There’s an excruciating dinner-party in a chapter called A Pleasant Evening where family tensions get to almost murderous levels.
And underneath all that is the sense of the Maori and their dislocation, like a deeper atmosphere. And there is the sea! It’s our New Zealand medium, the sea.
The Peastick Girl would make a great film. In an ideal world, who would you love to see play the main roles? Which director would you choose? I write really cinematically, so the book is very visual. And I write a lot of dialogue – so for both these reasons that book would translate very readily into film. And who would I have do it, in an ideal world? The New Zealand woman film-maker who has the most beautiful cinematic language in the world: Jane Campion, of course.
As for the main roles, I think Naomi Watts would be marvelous for Mollie (all that sweetness and vagueness, and underneath it all a strength no one much has bothered to find out about. But Mollie is only 32.)
For Teresa, the heroine – Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and was also fantastic in The Winter’s Bone. Because she is so Resolute! Teresa goes through a huge amount of pain and fright in the course of the year of this book, but she’s tough.
Hugo, the main guy in the first half of the book is, Teresa thinks while she is looking at him on the first night that they meet, the most beautiful man that she has ever seen. And that’s his problem – because of this he’s never really had to develop his character. But he’s really charming and you find out about what has damaged him. Whenever I think about him I think about that English actor, Rupert Penry-Jones, the really gorgeous one from Spooks.
I could go on at length – there are 8 Major roles and another 20 significant other characters and then a world of people beyond that who come into focus and vanish again as the plot takes them.
What kind of literature would you like to see coming out of New Zealand? Young work is probably the best short answer - not necessarily written BY the young but ABOUT the young. I think there's a very special generation in NZ between 20-45: independent, clever, good fun, and metropolitan.