4th March 2021
To celebrate the announcement of the amazing Ockham New Zealand Book Awards' finalists this week, we're revisiting our interview with the great Pip Adam following the publication of her now shortlisted novel, Nothing To See.
In October of 2020, Pip was appointed the Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence for 2021.
Nothing To See is one of four novels shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction category ($57,000). The winners will be announced at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 12. You can view all the shortlisted titles, here >
This interview was originally published in July 2020.
Pip Adam, author, workshop facilitator, Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize winner, and vegan quiche extraordinaire, sat down with us this week to chat about what things have been like since the release of her latest novel Nothing to See. Over a Libertine Kapow tea, Pip fills us in on writing with care, what excites her in contemporary literature and some of her current favourite reads.
What is your day job?
Um. So much day job! This question always makes me nervous and a bit stressed because it reminds me it's so complicated - and normally people are after a short answer. At the moment, I'm working at: International Institute of Modern Letters, Whitireia, Northland Tech, for NZSA, City Gallery, Kahini and I'm also doing a bit of work for ArtExplore and a couple of things for other individual people. I have what might be known as a portfolio career - I facilitate workshops, I write, I interview people.
What is your connection to Vic Books?
I love Vic Books. When I am up at Kelburn or down at Pipitea I love to wander around Vic Books. I've also really enjoyed a few very cool events at both shops.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm trying to unlearn everything I assume about how I write at the moment. It's a bit scary but I'm trying to see if I can write something I don't know how to write - at the moment it's formless and aimless and that freaks me out a bit. I think maybe being frightened of my work is not a bad way for me to be.
What was it like writing after winning the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for The New Animals? Did it feel as though there were more expectations or scrutiny? Or did you feel challenged to write in different/new ways?
I have tried a few times to answer this question and I find it really hard. Like, I think in the past I've said, 'Oh, it gave me more confidence,' and that is true to an extent. I have immense respect for the judges that year and the other writers on the shortlist and the longlist and who wrote books that year. So, it meant that when I felt anxious I could think about that, but I'm not sure confidence is that right word, I think maybe it's community. Like, being in that shortlist - the day we all had together before the awards night, that is one of the best days of my life. So, yeah, I wonder if maybe *that* is what changed me - that day. I'm not sure I'll ever understand it. I'm not sure what I was expecting. Like I am so selfish like that, so self-indulgent. I am always writing for myself - to amuse myself. All that outside stuff is so far from my mind. I'm not sure I could write if it wasn't. But that day, with Annaleese and Brannavan and Murdoch and all the other writers, I thought about that a lot about how we are all sitting in different places playing in our imaginary worlds - maybe at work, maybe in front of the computer, maybe asleep dreaming.
What was your writing like in lockdown? Did it drastically affect any of your new projects?
I wrote very little in lockdown - there was quite a bit to do paid workwise. Moving workshops online, supporting people through tough times and all the weird psychological games it played with me. I did not cope well with it - I thought I would, but it made me incredibly sad and a feeling of real hopelessness and fear just moved right on in. I used to think writers needed to be unhappy to write but, for me, it is the opposite. I have to have hope to write, I think.
How do you manage writing about trauma? Do you need to distance yourself when writing about difficult topics or experiences? Are there particular ways you take care of yourself (or your characters, or audience)?
I think this is such an important thing to talk about, and I have very few answers. It's weird because I thought writing fiction would make it easier to write about trauma - but there is an intense investigation that still needs to take place for me. This kind of imaginative embodiment which can be incredibly triggering and dangerous if I don't have support.
I attended a course with Alexander Chee recently and he said this really important thing. What I heard him say was, I can't process the trauma for the first time in a work that will be shared with other people. I think this is why, for me, exploring trauma in therapy, in conversation, in diaries, has been an important first step before writing around it. I also feel incredibly conflicted about writing difficult things in fiction. I never want to make anyone's load heavier to carry and reading is often done alone. I'm thinking a lot at the moment about how I can care for people who might read the book through the structure and language decisions I make *in* the book. Like, is there a way to ask for and gain consent through the language we use and the way we frame difficult things?
Do you think it's important for writers to have a secondary craft/career/esoteric knowledge base to draw from, as you did in The New Animals (with hairdressing) and I'm Working on a Building (by auditing engineering lectures)?
I am all about the body and I guess both those secondary things are about the body - like, the body in motion, the body at work. So, I think that is what I might think is important to be able to draw on. The feeling of hair in your hands, the sense of a building under stress.
That being said, I often work out creative ideas through other things: music, video games, even a walk. That's why I think it's so useful for me to have such varied paid work - I bump into things I wouldn't normally seek out and often these things answer some question about story or language.
What excites you about contemporary fiction?
I am very excited about the access I have to work which is not from the mainstream. I feel like it is easier and easier to read work which is outside my experience and I'm very grateful for that. Maybe it has always been here and it is just me realising. I feel excited that I can hear so many writers talking about their work on podcasts and the like, and that I can have access to work in experimental formats. I feel incredibly excited about contemporary fiction. I think this also comes through the massive privilege I have of reading work in progress - there are so many amazing writers at the moment.
How do you make a good quiche?
Embarrassingly, I am vegan. But I have this *amazing* quiche recipe which uses tofu, mustard powder and vinegar for the egg bit of the filling and nuts for the base. I can almost feel the collective groan from here :) The recipe comes from this very old, very odd book called Diet for a New World by John Robbins (ironically the son of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream and cake empire). The book was published in 1992 and it was the first vegan cookbook I ever bought. I still make heaps of things out of it - including Macaroni-No-Cheese - if anyone needs any more confirmation that I am an annoying and bougie person.
When I was a teenager I had a job in a bakery and I loved making the quiche. I used to 'accidentally' spill the filling on the baking tray so I could eat it when it came out of the oven.
What are your quick-fire book recommendations?
Anything by Bae Suah. Annaleese Jochem's Baby, um, oh, Hinemoana Baker's new collection Funkhaus is awesome.
What are you reading at the moment?
Go Tell it On The Mountain by James Baldwin and Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T. Fleischmann.
What do you like about them?
Baldwin is amazing, the way this novel feels like it is about one person's experience, then it opens up to include so much. Fleischmann's book is really interesting in that the structure kind of reflects the content. Garth Greenwell pointed that out, like, it's a lot about polyamory and in order to talk about this experience it has needed to write against a lot of narrative conventions.
Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?
The unnamed narrator of Bae Suah's Nowhere to be Found. I feel very *seen* by that book. The boredom, the sway of external forces, the danger of hope.
Hardback or paperback?
Libertine Kapow Tea.