J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie (Hachette) is KYD‘s First Book Club pick for February. Read Ellen Cregan’s review of the novel and stay tuned to the KYD Podcast for a recording of our in-conversation event with the author.
Take a moment to imagine a sports car rounding a bend. It’s red, isn’t it? It has two doors and a spoiler. The bend curls around a rocky cliff face.
Now imagine a beach. You see a gentle tide sliding over the shore, turning sea shells, darkening the golden sand. You see kaleidoscopic umbrellas. You see sunken footprints. You feel the warmth of the sun, blazing in an unblemished blue sky. You hear seagulls.
This is what most people see, because the human brain has a habit of conceptualising common things like beaches and sports cars in an instant. There are rules about these common things; the majority of people will call upon the most available representation without a great deal of cognition. But beaches are not all golden sand, carefree locals, and gentle waves. Most beaches are completely different. In short, the beach you imagine is not the beach I imagine.
The beach I imagine is called Maketu, and it happens to be the place I set my debut novel, Call Me Evie. When I transposed my perspective of Maketu on the page, the first thing I did was listed the myriad associations readers had about beach towns. In this way I discovered what parts of Maketu fit the common idea of a beach and parts I would need to focus their gaze on.
I knew that if I was to write about Maketu I would have to get as close to the real thing as possible. But the more I immersed myself in the story, the more my perception changed.
Maketu is an hour’s drive from where I grew up. It’s horses in paddocks, dogs roaming the streets untethered. Maketu is an upthrust of headland overlooking a stony beach; rough surf where fangs of mussel-crusted rocks breach the sea in the gully between waves. It’s a place where the locals either grin or leer, watching you pass without shame or reluctance. I knew that if I was to write about Maketu I would have to get as close to the real thing as possible. But the more I immersed myself in the story, the more my perception of the place changed. If you spend years and years writing about a place, visiting only a few times and largely relying on what you could recall, your imagining of the place is contaminated by both the narrative and the necessary concessions you make in service of the story. Like the characters in my novel, I too was was subject to the biases and fallibility of memory.
I returned to Maketu in January, shortly after my book was released. I was surprised to find that the milk bar was not where I imagined it at all; it was almost as if someone had plucked it up and shifted it down the road. I soon realised that it was I who had moved it in Evie. The plot demanded it of me. I was also surprised to find the local pie maker was much larger than I recalled; again I chose to exclude this Maketu landmark from the story as I saw it was an unnecessary distraction. The cliffs were taller than I’d described, the people more abundant, the local marae much more prevalent. I made the decision early to avoid writing about the strong local gang presence, but of course the first time I took my wife to Maketu, a Mongrel Mob patch was one of the first things we saw. It seems in writing this story my imagination had subtly reshaped the village, and my memories of it seceded to the world inhabited by my characters.
In writing this story my imagination had subtly reshaped the village, and my memories of it seceded to the world inhabited by my characters.
What responsibility do I have as a writer to capture authentic versions of real settings? When you write setting, you are not just writing place; you are writing the time period, the local population, and you are also writing through your perspective and worldview. My worldview, for instance, is not universal. My gaze may linger on things that others pass over. If I were a birdwatcher I might note the call of the tui, or the way the beach is populated more by the larger black-back gull than the ubiquitous red beaked gull.
Perspective is a funny thing – your worldview informs the things you notice. Likewise, the occurrences that elicit an emotional response are the things most readily available to memory. In Maketu, If I see a child with a black eye, or three children on the back of a horse, I am much more likely to recall these things. Emotions are amber, they preserve memories whole. I would feel anger and nostalgia respectively, and when it came to write Maketu, these are the memories I may refer to and the events that shape my perspective of the place.
If memory is flawed and perspective colours the way you describe a real-life setting, then what about story? If I had written a love story, I’d be much more likely to direct the gaze of my readers to the more romantic elements of the setting, like the sweeping estuary or the beauty of the landscape. They might hike the beach tracks, or fish off the pier. Likewise, if I had written a farce, I might call upon the insular nature of the locals to evoke a sense of comedy rather than trepidation. But I wrote a tense psychological suspense novel. This demanded that I direct the gaze of the reader toward the more claustrophobic and paranoid elements of small town New Zealand – the violence, the bovine stares of the local children, the way dogs roam the streets.
When you write setting, you are also writing through your perspective and worldview. My gaze may linger on things that others pass over.
An easy criticism to level at suspense and thrillers such as mine concerns the pervasiveness of the negative elements: the antagonism of the characters, the ominous atmosphere. Writing from first person is again a matter of perspective. To my wife, I’d always spoken about Maketu with love and longing. I told her it’s the best place on the planet. When we first arrived she became ambivalent and soon she was fearful. She made eye contact with the locals and where I saw only an eagerness to start a conversation, she felt a glaring suspicion. When she looked out and saw the waves, she saw inhospitable walls of sea water slamming against jagged rocks and I saw endless sets of curling waves. Seeing a near-hairless dog hobbling along, she imagined the stones of its teeth crushing her forearm, while I rushed over to pat it.
The Maketu of Call Me Evie aligns much more closely with my wife’s experience than mine. But of course the real Maketu is neither, and both. As with everything, it is a matter of perspective.