Getting to Know Emily Perkins

What is your day job?

I convene one of the MA in Creative Writing workshops at the International Institute of Modern Letters, which means working with a small cohort of writers who are producing book-length fiction folios. We meet weekly as a group to discuss their drafts, the art of fiction and the ways writing meets and makes the world. We read a lot. I supervise some of the MA students individually, as well as a couple of PhD candidates. So basically the day job is reading, writing, thinking and conversing with people who also love those things - it's hell, ha ha. I also write fiction and plays, and have three kids - two of them are at VUW at the moment.

What is your connection to Vic Books?

I'm a keen customer. I also love just walking through the shop, browsing, and going to readings and launches. And I worked in an older version of Vic Books back in the 90s, while I was studying creative writing with Bill Manhire. I seem to remember we sold a lot of true crime, but that's probably all gone to podcasts now.

After being on research leave last year, you've returned to the IIML to convene one of the Masters Fiction rōpū. How does it feel to be back in the IIML?

Full on! What a year it is for everyone. We're newly back in the workshop room and I am so happy to be back into the connections and warmth and nuanced conversations that come more easily with meeting face-to-face. I'm always in awe of what the MA students achieve, but particularly so this year. I hope that if they can write through everything Covid has brought; they'll be set up for a future of writing through anything. And their voices are so important. We need writing to continue through hard times and major changes, to bear witness and contribute to a changing world.

What are you working on at the moment?

On my leave I finished a draft of a novel about a wealthy woman and a cult, and a draft of a play about emotional robots, mushrooms and middle age. That sounds like I picked a bunch of random nouns and threw them together but yep, accurate descriptions! They need further work so that's what I'm up to.

Do you find many differences between writing fiction and playwriting? Do you prefer to keep different mediums seperate or can you write them concurrently?

For me, they require immersion at separate times, and with almost physically different approaches; it feels like you're turning on another part of your mind. There is a bit of overlap - I trained at Toi Whakaari, and carry some of that into fiction - scenes, dialogue, subtext, character and so on. In fiction I love finding the voice, which I guess is a kind of acting. For me, writing fiction is quite aural. Drama is propelled differently and makes you think in shapes and space. What I like about the play I'm working on is that it's unhooked me from writing social realism. I would never write an absurdist novel about emotional AI and mycelium. But maybe I should.

Are "Emily The Writer" and "Emily The Convener" the same person? Or do they use different skills and parts of your personality?

The roles inform each other and care about a lot of the same things - as a writer I'm always learning from being in the workshop room, and vice versa. But fundamentally they draw on different selves; the convenor self is more socialised! Convening is about making a space where other people can safely be free to explore, and in writing you need that freedom for yourself. The convenor part of me is quite responsible, but when I'm writing I have to tap into a bit more weirdness.

Do you have any mahi (past or present) you would like to promote or discuss?

It's not my mahi, but just to say one of the exciting things about this time is how much new writing is available - the number of publication venues for emerging writers seems to have exploded in the past few years, and a lot of them are writer-led; this generation has a great ethic of mutual support, and a sort of make-your-own-fun approach. There’s an engagement with politics and society that can connect creative work and activism in powerful ways. I hope people check these out online or in print (apologies to those I've missed!): Tupuranga, Stasis, Scum, Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Foodcourt, Mimicry, Aotearotica - these are all worth your time, as are long-established and vital journals like Sport, Landfall and others - there must be a master list somewhere!

What are you reading at the moment?

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo; How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett; and Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life by Patrick Curry. Pip Adam's new novel, Nothing to See, is calling to me. Also I'm glued to the news via Twitter.

What do you like about it?

They all emit a kind of life force (not counting Twitter - although I do think of that as a live, twisting stream). That's what I look for in a book, I think. In workshop, we talk about stirring up an atmosphere, bringing the reader into a waking dream. Life force is another way of thinking about it.

Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?

If I had to choose just one, probably Jo March. Jo wanted to be a writer, and independent - ideas that were very appealing to me as a young girl. And maybe identifying with literary characters is most important when you're young.

Hardback or paperback?


Favourite coffee?

Black coffee. For sure.