Monday, 14 September 2015

5 questions for Ian Wedde

Trifecta by Ian Wedde is a funny, fast-paced story about the three children of a famous architect, the over-bearing Martin Klepka. It's a story told three ways, by grown-up siblings who are battling their own problems as well as their on-going sibling rivalry. Trifecta is Ian Wedde's eighth novel. Its publication this month comes only a year after his memoir, The Grass Catcher, was released.

Ian Wedde with Pete (photo: Joanne Forsburg)

Your new novel tackles the sticky territory of difficult family dynamics, in which a home is a place people are either refusing to budge from or desperate to escape. It’s interesting that this follows on from your memoir, which had the subtitle ‘a digression about home’. Can you tell us about the genesis of the Trifecta story? Did the memoir push you in the direction where home and family was something you needed to keep writing about?

There’s no intentional or conscious connection between The Grass Catcher and this novel, though a lot of what I’ve written over the years has had a ‘home’ theme in one form or another.  Certainly writing the ‘digression about home’ didn’t push me in the direction of Trifecta. Some time ago I began to think about writing a series of linked stories in which distinct voices and points of view would intersect in one way or another. 'The German architect’s house' idea had been hanging around for a few years – it became the hub of a possible identity conflict. Then came the infusion of a narrative about the arrival of modernism in New Zealand post World War 2.  This interested me as a way of exploring the influence of an overpoweringly strong-willed authority figure, an architect, associated with that cultural shift and the demands on identity it involved. The red house is the architect’s embodiment. How do his children manage this container, this house/father? Do they want to live in it/him, or get out? Also, I’ve been interested for a long time in the historical disconnects between the modernist house, which in many of its early European forms was more about spatial and functional concepts than ‘home’; and the New Zealand use of the word ‘home’ to mean house.

What’s the difference for you in exploring ideas in fiction opposed to exploring them in memoir?

In fiction I can make characters up, or develop them from minimal components observed in the world. I can make a story the articulating machinery of an idea. The story doesn’t have to derive from a ‘real life’ experience – it doesn’t have to follow the contours of a lived life. It’s unlikely to be ‘personal’. The memories contained in the narrative can be entirely invented to serve the key ideas I want to explore.

Can you talk about the decision to tell the story from the three siblings (the trifecta) points of view? Democracy?

Three is the ideal relationship conflict number (‘sad’, ‘bad’ and ‘mad’). It allows for the development of strongly distinguished characters who, however, can remain in sight of each other in terms of relationship – their triangulation can be both intimate and alienating. ‘Three’s a crowd.’ It’s also a reasonable number of children for their mother to have had! Most importantly, for the reader it’s a manageable number of points-of-view and voices to keep separately in mind, and to relate to each other. So when Mick is convinced his brother Sandy is responsible for a newspaper article, we can take that thought across into Sandy’s world and discover that Sandy knows nothing about the article – the narrative disjunction comes naturally in the writing, it doesn’t have to be spelled out expositionally. Also, the reader gets to know what the characters think of each other, and then encounters each of them separately and is able to measure that encounter against the other siblings’ opinions. And they can be seen to change without that becoming too complicated.

Did Veronica demand more from you than Mick or Sandy? How do you approach character when writing fiction?

No, Veronica didn’t demand more from me as a writer – I enjoyed writing her story very much, and liked her a lot. As for how I approach character – I don’t really know if there’s a simple answer. The three characters in Trifecta are complete inventions, and yet I can visualise them, I can hear their voices, I can even be in their consciousnesses – for example, I was close to tears when writing Veronica watching her daughter leave the Lebanese restaurant. On the other hand, the characters have jobs to do – I wanted them to represent conflicting states of mind or world-views. I needed Mick to represent a biologically determined, endorphin-driven, mesalimbic pathway, dopaminergic world view, but for his brother Sandy to have a view of the world as primarily culturally determined; and for their sister Vero to believe in ‘taking care’, with all the impossible contradictions involved in that; for her to inhabit a richly synaesthesic world; and (in contrast to her brothers) to be good at making relationship-based decisions. All three character-traits collectively form a complex, paradoxical armature for ‘the red house’; they represent the conflicts of values that the house embodies. In a way, each of the siblings has emerged (or not) from the house (from their father) with an aspect of the house predominant in their personality. 

Ian, you seem to be capable of delivering a book every third year or so (two in the last two years). What is the secret behind your output? Do stories bank up in your head and demand to be let out?

I’ve been extremely lucky in having had supported time to write books. The writing time itself is often quite short compared to the amount of time I seem to need to get into the writing as such. I spend a lot of time developing ideas and possible narrative pathways – walking around with a notebook, collecting bits and pieces of information; not so much research as mental play. I usually have an amount of bread-and-butter writing to do, connected to curatorial work or magazine and journal commissions, so I tend to be writing most of the time, and switch to the main job with a certain amount of momentum already established. I was lucky enough to have time in Berlin on the CNZ writers’ residency when I wrote Trifecta, and I was at the stage where I had the momentum as well as a head-full of ready-to-go stuff. I could get stuck in any time day or night, or get on my bike and go somewhere with my notebook, or go to the archives. That said, I often have spells between big projects – these fill up with those other kinds of writing. And some books have taken a long time: I started messing around with Symmes Hole about 1973 but it wasn’t published until 1986; in 1989 I had most of a draft of Chinese Opera but shelved it and in 2005 threw most of it away and finished a version that was published in 2008. In general, though, something new has usually put its hand up before I’ve finished the book I’m writing. I think it’s got to do with being in that overexcited final stage of writing: asking for trouble.

Trifecta is available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $30.

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