“The thought of them freaked me, the fences. But really, why? I’d only seen them from a distance. The noise they made, that high-pitched tune that my hedge blackbirds sing-songly sang. It hurt your ears. Like the burglar alarm I once set off in a disused hotel office. Each screech you felt squeezing at your eardrum. But more than that, it was, I don’t know, ominous, otherworldly.”
In Nick Ascroft’s new novel As Long as Rain it’s November 2018 and Earth is in the thrall of aliens aka Loopies: the gassy, slug-like Puncs and their slaves the Commas. Humans have been confined to prison camps, sterilized and mentally ‘impaired’ so they can only think and babble in solipsistic language structures. Southland teenager Libby Lavers is an exception in two ways: he was conceived after the invasion and allowed to live, and he has the ability to think logically and talk coherently. Libby must escape and save human kind.
Nick is well known in New Zealand as a prolific poet, performer and editor. He’s also a Scrabble champion, an alternative-music expert, a ‘WikiPlatypus’ and the author of the players’ guide How to Win at 5-a-Side: Take Your Team to the Next Level (2016). This year he has published a science-fiction novel. He was kind enough to spare some of his diminishing free time (he’s also a new dad) to discuss this exciting prose enterprise.
1) Some authors might be content to present an ‘alien’ and leave it at that, without offering much further explanation. You’ve drawn whole planetary eras, evolutionary processes, intellectual and linguistic histories and intriguing academic digressions. The compendium-like effect reminds me a little of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Are you enamored of the idea as writer as Creator?
It’s too fascinating to leave the idea of alienness undissected, isn’t it. Some of the creatures on Earth are so alien to us, especially those in unimaginable environments like the midnight zone of the deep sea. But they all share this planet and are all related to us, the vertebrates especially not being that deep in time since splitting, half a billion years or so. So how different would an alien be? Entirely different planetary geology, different chemicals, different isotopes. Different essential replicating mechanism. No DNA for aliens. And what would be the same? It’s a bit unknowable, but highly conjecturable. Yet disprovable too, if your conjecture lacks logic. All of which makes it fun to write evolutionary stories of alien entities. Is this some sort of fantasy of playing God? Are writers no less conceited than surgeons? Probably. In a sequel I haven’t written, but noodled at in my mind, Libby (the main character) receives God-like powers – not a God-like mind, just the ability to do a whole lot with some whizz-bang technology – and this suggests I have a fetish for omnipotence. It would be nice, no? As to the Silmarillion, that book is one of my favourites of all time. To tell a creation myth that ignores physics and has a couple trees that light the world and is just generally so invested in a kind of wilful primitivism is to be applauded. I read it as: someone from the old campfire cultures might’ve believed this. What a thing to aim for. And yet it’s better than any folklore I’ve heard of. My guess is they all had too many authors, the old myths. You know, folklore by committee. Everybody wanted to add their own episode. Really, Eric? A magical dog? Yep. Big old dog. Yep. Bite give you hiccups.
2) You play with perception and its inherent flaws in a way that teases the reader’s intellect. The story reads like a puzzle that Libby, the beleaguered teen protagonist, must solve, but it’s complicated because each new puzzle piece can radically alter the developing picture. Did you have any models for such a mind-bending concept? Are there other authors who do something similar?
The ‘fallible narrator’ was one of those phrases people peppered essays with in my university days. I can’t think of a single book that has one, but there must be zillions. Must be, right? Anyway, I took the idea to heart along with a lot of other postmodernist nonsense and it provides fire for my ideas on fiction. I kind of want to escape postmodernism. Endless questioning and destabilising without answers or structure. But something in the set of ideas is stuck in my throat like a fishbone. I’m sure it’s unfashionable, and I’m the kind of scumbag who WANTS to be fashionable. But there it is. As to the mind-bending, I think that’s where science fiction has the jump on other genres. There’s the bit in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch I think where the protagonist is on Mars, but through the drug that puts him in a dreamworld he returns to Earth. The story continues and he’s on Earth. But wasn’t that just a drug dream? So what, says Philip K Dick, roll on. Nevertheless I did have a very fixed idea of what the truth is in As Long as Rain. The first readers of drafts had airy theories, such as that Libby was schizophrenic and there were no aliens. Nice idea, but it annoyed me. And that’s the danger with saying the narrator is definitely lying to you on occasions and that other people are lying to him. I hope that some sense of the puzzle revealed has occurred by the end, but I can’t fully imagine the reader experience that I am trying to sculpt. There was one point I left deliberately unanswered, and that was to leave room for my imagined sequel. Not to let off a spoiler bomb but it concerns the point of McKinnon’s work in the technicolour kitchen in Doubtful.
3) How did the story develop? Did you know the shape from the very beginning or follow a thread to its end? Did the narrative change much throughout its production?
I always knew the end, but I realised early on that if it was all planned then the typing was no fun. The bashing out of the sentences is creative, but the imagining and the dreaming up is the real fun bit. So if there’s some of that while typing, it’s more likely the typing will happen, if you follow. Originally, in another postmodernist shamefulness, the story was based on Hamlet, so I had at least a strong framework to hang things on. Rose and Chris are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for instance. Hamlet ‘deliberates’ on some petty family thing while Fortinbras is out there offscreen doing some real heroism. I let that concept dilute a little to ongoing references to Hamlet as opposed to strict plot-mapping. Glad I did. It’s an Easter egg rather than the story itself, and that should be of more importance than a self-set postmodern exercise for no purpose.
4) The book fits snugly into the New Zealand canon. There are self-referential allusions to The Quiet Earth and Man Alone, livestock-killing, a ute, the native bush, Māori spirituality… I thought of iconic kiwi shows like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the old mini-series Children of the Dog Star (remember that?). I read this as a combination of homage and oneupmanship, showing what you can do with it. Fair?
Yeah. It’s Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee for sure. That was a TV show too. The Wilberforces next door were actually slug aliens. That shit got in my head. When I was ten I wrote a story about slug aliens taking over Te Anau. My life is just a repeat showing of the horror and thrill-ride of seeing Under the Mountain. But yes. I liked the idea of aliens who spoke New Zealand English. Aliens who said, ‘No yeah. No I reckon, eh.’ It’ll never happen, but I imagined a film version or TV version, and the fact that humans could play the parts of the aliens without makeup – ah jeez, again the postmodernism with references to aliens in 1960s scifi TV – and that New Zealanders could without putting on an appropriate accent, I liked it. I was recently asked in an interview why my poetry wasn’t more New Zealandy of landscape, etc. I wanted to say, read my upcoming novel. As a linguist I worked on the phonetics of New Zealand English vowels. I’m a dreadful daft patriot. I love this country for the only reason that I was born here. Patriotism is just self-satisfaction in another hat and I know it’s wrong. But whoop. This is a bit of a love letter to Fiordland, the undead rainforest and the bush parrots.
5) At the ESL school I taught at in East Timor there was a quote on the high barred fence: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world – Wittgenstein’. There was a slum just across the road and it seemed appallingly obnoxious in that context, considering the parents there couldn’t afford clothes let alone tuition fees. In As Long as Rain, though, it’s demonstrably true: humans are circumscribed by a degraded language. There is an examination and critique of language as insufficient to comprehend cosmic mysteries. Does this reflect your own frustration with the limits of human discourse?
No. I think I’m mired in human discourse and can know no different. But the idea fascinates me, that our language is a cul de sac. Our psychology is shaped by old ape needs and our language reflects this. The limits of our language and psychology limit our ability to comprehend anything outside of it. Apes don’t smell no quantum states. Apes don’t gotta have sex with no interface of time and space. So we say: ha! Mathematics. We get maths and that’s what the universe is. Don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, I love maths. Yay maths. But I think things like maths, morality and music, while being very real and important to us, are meaningless outside of human being. The latter two are easier to argue, but surely things are less than or greater than other things independent of some dude falling in a wood or whatnot? I’m working on it. Wittgenstein deserves his due (or those that have summarised him successfully). Not just for lauding it over the Timorese with soundbites, but because he saw that understanding the way language works was crucial to talking about philosophical conundrums. I’d go further. To understand the human condition you have to read the dictionary. What words do we use? Why are they so morally charged and judgy?
6) Anyone familiar with your poetry will recognize the Ascroft style, which might be characterized as sheer verbal exuberance. There are rare words, weird phrases, laugh-out-loud wit, arresting metaphors and meticulously elegant descriptions. The prose seems quite as carefully crafted as the poems and in fact there are poems embedded in the text, including a limerick and the rather beautiful lyric that supplies the title phrase. Are there significant differences in the way you write prose to the way you write poetry?
That I had written a lot of poetry was a curse really. With a poem you can reasonably expect a reader to perhaps read it twice to get the nuances and meaning. I’m not saying that you can be more cryptic or that that is a good thing, but a reader of a poem expects to have to work a little and to go back and appreciate an early line as it relates to a later one. I didn’t want to do that with the novel. I wanted it to be a series of fun scenes, described as discernible events – a bit of meditative pondering, but intelligible – and in modern clipped prose, not stylised wang. But in fact stylised wang would’ve presented no harder a task (if a questionable result). I found it tough not to hide details of importance. I liked to be descriptive, but the basic good housekeeping of prose, like providing the physical appearances of your characters, I was blind to. The poems were the easy bits. I can write the soft blather of poems any old time. But the generosity of leading a reader through specific events and reiterating details that need reiterating, that’s a tougher proposition, and leaves me with massive respect for novelists, especially the populist ones. I don’t have the ability to write a populist novel, not because I’m so super-fancy, but I’m just not a good enough writer. It was an important lesson to learn. You have to write in a way that fits your abilities. My novels will be like this, and slowly a little slicker. I am going to spend hours on every sentence. Then I’m going to go back and change one word. Then I’m going to be too precious to change or delete material I should. I need a brutal editor who says STOP USING SO MANY ADVERBS, but I don’t have one. And I love adverbs. They are duck-splittingly irremovable from some sentences, or so says my preciousness.
7) What were the most troublesome aspects of writing a book of this density and magnitude?
I am glad that you suggest it might be troublesome. Thank you for suggesting there is magnitude. I have only ever beaten myself up over how lazy I’ve been writing this tiny tiny book over countless years. Ultimately the boring answer is that time is all that’s needed. To be a writer who spends hours at the keypad you have to be obnoxious enough to people you know to shut them out. I am bad at this. Sounds like I’m blaming all the nose-pokers who want to have lunch with me. Sure, it is totally their fault. The toughest battle in fact is procrastination. Whenever I play sergeant-major and demand that I sit down for so many hours and pump out so many words before being allowed a biscuit, the work gets done. None of it is hard … beyond the learning-to-crawl frustration of every sentence. But my usual mode is to think about writing all the time and do absolutely none of it. This causes the density perhaps. I have spent thousands of mental hours on this book and so many thousand more than I spent typing. My next book is exactly the same. I promised myself it wouldn’t be, but I failed to get the promise in a legally binding contract and myself is a weaselly bugger.
8) Your first volume of poetry From the Author of (2000) has an aye-aye, a lemur native to Madagascar, on the cover and Madagascar also features prominently in your novel. What’s the fascination?
The main thing to note from that cover is the back. There is the phrase in the bio: ‘He is working on a novel’. That line has haunted me for 18 years, because YES this is the same novel. It’s only 176 pages in the (forthcoming!) paperback, so a novella really. How’s that novel? My friends would ask, laughing. How’s that … uh … novel coming along? (Exhales.) I finally finished it. But yeah, Madagascar. I saw a documentary in the 1990s called ‘The Living Edens: Madagascar’. It’s brilliant. The narrator has a wonderful camp drawl that reminds me of the black guy in the Mannequin movies. He talks of a plant that ‘secretes a bitter latex’ and it’s all in the delivery. This was where I first encountered all the lemurs and chameleons and mantises of the African island time-capsule of our pre-monkey origins. The aye-aye was the winner. Ugly, smelly, misshapen, shaky, bug-eyed and weird. How can you not love it? Short answer though is that I’m fascinated by primates, and Madagascar is ruled by them. Well, they’re all doomed of course. And I am grimly fascinated by extinction too.