The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Mister Pip, Hand Me Down World and more
Ten Terrifying Questions
1.To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born in Lower Hutt, attended primary and high school in the Hutt, and Victoria University in Wellington.
2.What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I can’t recall wanting to be anything at the age of 12 or 18, although sport was a high priority. By 30 writing had become part of my life.
3.What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
4.What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
I like the story of Van Gogh never selling a single work in his life time. I think that’s quite a useful bit of information. It’s a good example of unwavering commitment. I don’t like the bit about his cutting off his ear. It’s a bit show-offy…unnecessary really and just silly. But this probably isn’t what you meant by asking after influences. Chocolate chip ice cream is up there in terms of form and capacity to surprise and enchant. I rate Kapiti raspberry white chocolate ice cream higher than anything produced by Damien Hirst…but not as high as ‘Hell’ produced by the Chapman brothers or the scene of the arrival at the death camp painted by Gerhard Richter.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Because the invitation is so generous and the form creates its own set of rules.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Hand Me Down World.
It is about a woman who sets off on a journey from North Africa to find her child in Berlin. For most of the novel ‘her’ story is told by those she comes into contact with. As she is handed on so is the story in a multiplicity of voices stretching from Tunisia to Italy. (BBGuru: here is how the Australian publisher puts it – A woman washes ashore in Sicily. She has come from north Africa to find her son, taken from her when he was just days old by his father and stolen away to Berlin. With nothing but her maid’s uniform and a knife stashed in a plastic bag, she relies on strangers— some generous, some exploiting—to guide her passage north.
These strangers tell of their encounters with a quiet, mysterious woman in a blue coat—each account a different view of the truth, a different truth. And slowly these fragments of a life piece together to create a spellbinding story of the courage of a mother and the versions of truth we create to accommodate our lives.
Haunting and beautiful, Hand Me Down World is simply unforgettable.)
Enjoyment, I hope; engagement of one kind or another. Beyond that – which is a lot – I wouldn’t like to promise more. I never tell readers what they will find. A novel should offer the same reward as a treasure chest. You plunge in without knowing in advance what you will take out of it.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Oh, the usual rollcall of writers… More locally, I admire the writer James McNeish. He’s kept the faith for a long time. I admire his level of engagement with the world and his dedication to the need to respond and in a variety of ways – stories, memoir, journalism. For the same reasons I admire the work of the late Rysard Kapucinski. There are some poets whose imaginative reach and daring I admire – such as Canadian Anne Carson. Seamus Heaney‘s essays are as impressive as his poems. The surface play and musicality of Bill Manhire‘s poems also reward closer attention.
It’s a secret.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Failure is good. Learn to embrace it as a possibility. Otherwise you won’t ever take the risks that are necessary to producing something that is startling and new.
Lloyd, thank you for playing.
Books by Lloyd Jones:
I was looking for Petar Shapallo but the face that had been Petar Shapallo’s had vanished under a surgeon’s knife.
In Enver Hoxha’s Albania you could spend years in prison for an act of dissent wrongly attributed to a distant relative. For half a century under the old dictator, every citizen was at the mercy of their biografi: a state record, often wildly inaccurate, of their life, deeds, antecedents and associates.
By the 1990s Enver Hoxha was dead and things were changing in Albania. The Party still held precarious power, but the statues were being pulled down. And there were persistent rumours of a man, chosen for his physical likeness to Enver, who had been torn away from his own life, forced to undergo plastic surgery and put to work as a stand-in. But where was he now? In 1991 Lloyd Jones travelled through Albania in search of Shapallo.
This tantalising early masterpiece was greeted on its original publication as a triumph; later, controversy erupted as some critics challenged its imaginative approach. Now the jury is in: part travel narrative, part fable, Biografi is an inquiry into the nature of identity itself.
In tango, there are no wrong turns. But every dance begins with a backward step. This is where Louise and Schmidt’s story begins, with a backward step.
Louise and Schmidt meet in a small town in New Zealand during World War I. When locals are stirred to violence against Schmidt for his German name, he and Louise take refuge in a remote cave overlooking the ocean. There, humming Argentinian songs into her ear, he teaches her the intimate rhythms of the tango—the dance that will bind them forever.
Years later, in her restaurant in Wellington, Rosa, Schmidt’s granddaughter, tells Lionel the tale of her grandfather’s affair with Louise.
And she teaches him to dance.
‘Jones has solved something that’s notoriously difficult: how to write about music so that the words themselves express its character…it’s a wonderful, aching tale.’ — NZ Herald
A boy watches his mother hooked and reeled ashore by a fisherman.
A couple give up their seats on a bus for lovers soon to be parted.
A husband enters a world imagined by his wife and pretends to be the man she loves.
Lloyd Jones’s The Man in the Shed is a haunting collection of stories about family and longing. These extraordinary tales take conventional family life and tilt it sideways, delivering a memorable blend of the suburban and the surreal.
‘Jones writes with economy and lyricism and possesses a striking command of metaphor.’ — Age
The Book of Fame
In August 1905 a party of young men took ship for England. Among them: four farmers, two bootmakers and a boatbuilder. Bunny and Fats, Bubs and Massa and all the Georges and Billys. They set out from Auckland, never dreaming they would conquer the world. They were bound for fame.
The first game, in Devon, ‘played in golden farmlight: a surprising victory’. By December they were the ‘wonderful All Blacks’ who had beaten Yorkshire (40-nil), England (15-nil) and Ireland (15-nil). Englishmen stopped them in the streets. ‘Mr Gallaher. Mr Gallaher, sir. How does it feel to be famous?’ ‘The pyramids are famous, son.’ They were a tribe far from home, weary, bedazzled, a little lost—but the world showed them wonders.
The world came to look at them, and they looked back: the Eiffel Tower, snow on Tierra del Fuego, English lords, Consommé Sarah Bernhardt. America! But years later, it was something else that remained indelible. A feeling shared, grave and simple, that survived all the acclaim.
In this singular melding of history and imagination, Lloyd Jones has created a work of great beauty and purity—a journey from innocence to celebrity; a story of loss and return.
You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.
After the trouble starts and the soldiers arrive on Matilda’s tropical island, only one white person stays behind. Mr Watts wears a red nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley. The kids call him Pop Eye. But there is no one else to teach them their lessons. Mr Watts begins to read aloud to the class from his battered copy of Great Expectations, a book by his friend Mr Dickens.
Soon Dickens’ hero Pip starts to come alive for Matilda. She writes his name in the sand and decorates it with shells. Pip becomes as real to her as her own mother, and the greatest friendship of her life has begun.
But Matilda is not the only one who believes in Pip. And, on an island at war, the power of the imagination can be a dangerously provocative thing.
‘Mister Pip is a rare, original and truly beautiful novel. It reminds us that every act of reading and telling is a transformation, and that stories, even painful ones, may carry possibilities of redemption.’ — Gail Jones
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.