Emma Neale and the boy who thought he was a bird
For Dunedin author and mother of two Emma Neale, raising children isn't only an everyday practicality, rather it's the stuff which inspires her creativity and underpins the plots and theme of her work.
"As a working mother, family life is at my fingertips every day," she confides. "It seems natural to write about it in my books. If I had more time to myself, perhaps I'd research the lives of Fourteenth Century monks or another topic requiring deep research. But I don't. My day is focused on being a parent, editor and writer, so I might as well make something of it."
Make something of it, indeed she has. Whether it's the fraught story of sibling loss underpinning her second novel Little Moon (Vintage, 2001), her poetry collection about motherhood and creativity, Spark (Steele Roberts, 2009) or the anthology, Swings + Roundabouts: Poems about Parenting, (Vintage, 2008), she's long explored the joys and ordeals of being and caring for a child.
No surprise then, she's returned to the nature of family dynamics in her latest book, Billy Bird. It's a book about the quirky titular young boy whose intelligence and sensitivity causes him to reacts to tragedy by escaping into a fantasy world in which he believes he's a bird. The novel is also an exploration of his parents, Liam and Iris' reaction to their son's behaviour and the grief they also feel.
After inclusion on last year's Ockham Book Award longlist for her poetry collection, Tender Machines, Billy Bird marks a return to fiction for Neale, one which is as much a challenge as a celebration. "I'm very interested in parenthood because it's a fraught as well as happy experience," she says. "It's so full of contradictions, which make rich literary territory to mine. Most parent who juggle money work and family work know what it is to feel fragmented; I did when my children were born.
"At the same time, this is important subject matter because what we do inside the home is at the roots of so much of what we do outside the home. I think all work which is about parenting is never only about the domestic sphere, but rather is commenting upon broader social issues."
With a subject so close to home, you might expect that writing Billy Bird was a breeze. Far from it, though, Neale explains, "The book is a long, long way from my original idea which was a verse novel about a very hectic, madcap family with a very theatrical, melodramatic child who the father mistakenly didn't think was his. Though the final version retains some poetic elements, I quickly decided it wasn't going to work as an entire series of interlinked poems because I couldn't really make the character dynamics work without writing it in prose.
"One of its next lives contained a brother for Billy and the family involved in a national disaster. But I couldn't get the timing and geography right for that. Then I started to think more seriously about my Billy and think about what might have induced a young boy like him to try and communicate his feelings by taking on the persona of a bird. When I did that, the novel in its finished form began to really come together. Even so, it's taken around five years to complete."
As part of the book's development, Neale approached health professionals and educations psychologists to ensure she captured Billy accurately. "I was about halfway through first drafting when I approached them and gave them an outline of my idea for the book. They were really helpful and steered me away from some of my original ideas. They thought that if Billy genuinely believed he was an actual bird, he would have had to have gone through such severe trauma that I realised I couldn't go there; the book would have become something relentlessly dark. I didn't really want it to be that kind of book."
Still, Neale confesses, in trying to decipher what was right or wrong for Billy, it was often her experience of as a mother, not health professional advice, which she relied upon. "Sometimes," she says, "I navigated through writing the book by drawing upon what I knew about children and parenthood from knowledge based on my observations of various children. Both my kids, for instance, have lived quite idiosyncratic lives, like Billy. When they were youngsters they played lots of imaginary games in which they transformed themselves into all kinds of animal and mythical characters. Frank O'Hara talks about the poet writing on their nerves. And I think sometimes I was doing that in Billy Bird too, following my gut instinct and asking myself constantly, 'Does this feel right for Billy to do?"
If being a mother has long sustained Neale's writings, the completion of Billy Bird saw her eldest, Abe, give something back. "I have been talking about the novel for a while to my kids, discussing scenes and characters I've struggled with. Once the manuscript was accepted for publication, I asked Abe whether he could draw something connected to the work. He came up with an amazing picture which was slightly offbeat and as interesting mix of melancholy and comedy. I think he got the tone just right. When I sent it to my publisher, they loved it too and agreed to use it as the cover of the book.
"Abe was really stoked to hear this news. At the time, he was saving up for a camera and a trip to Melbourne to see his best friend who had moved there a few months before. Designing the cover of Billy Bird meant Abe was paid a small fee which gave him something towards those two goals."
So what next for Neale? "At the moment I am in the middle of editing an anthology with the author Philip Temple called Manifesto: an anthology of political poems which is due out next year from Otago University Press. I am also begun writing poetry again, giving myself the time and permission to write really bad, first draft poems. I usually try and juggle too much. Now the writing of Billy Bird, is over, I can save up my energy. I need to with two kids who each have their different personalities."
Not a return to writing about paternity and maternity then? "Whatever I work on next, I'd like to move away from making art out of material close to hand. Presently, I've got two ideas for books. The first is connected to my fascination with the historical real life story of the New Zealand confidence trickster and male impersonator, Amy Bock. I'd love to do something based on her.
"The other idea I have is a novel based on genetics, identity and society which might tip over into science fiction; something which is connected to the commonalities between Maori and Greek legend, especially involving human to animal transformation.
Then, with a laugh, she realises what she's just said, "In a way that might be returning to familiar territory for me - the crucible of family. So perhaps, in spite of my promise to myself, I really can't escape writing about parenthood and children."
Emma Neale will be appearing at the 2016 Going West Literary Festival on September 9 and 10, including a talk chaired by Siobhan Harvey.
- Sunday Star Times