Publishing books since the 1980s and being a full-time writer since 1997, Elizabeth Knox has the type of writing career many writers dream of. With a bibliography of twelve novels, three autobiographical pieces, and several essays, Knox has one several awards and has received critical acclaim from peers in her home nation of New Zealand to people from across the world. With her latest novel, The Absolute Book, set to be released in the United States on February 9th, 2021, I was able to interview Knox about her life, other writers from New Zealand, and her latest manuscript.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Elizabeth Knox: I went from being an enthusiastic reader to a passionate one when I was about ten. Several books started that–Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in an edition titled The Silver Locusts, Andre Norton’s Stargate and Starguard. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Lantern Bearers, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead books. So, fantasy, science fiction, historical novels, horse sagas. I’ve reread all these books and they remain as enchanting as ever.
Yanes: You have been a full-time writer since 1997. Given that writers are known for suffering from imposter syndrome, was there a moment in which you saw yourself as a professional writer?
Knox: I think I only feel like a professional writer when I’m doing my taxes. I guess I behave in a professional way with editors and publishers and audiences at festivals. And the writing is public – but it still never feels public, or finished.
Yanes: As an American, I sadly don’t know much about New Zealand’s literary culture. Who are some other fantasy writers from New Zealand you think the world should know more about?
Knox: The obvious great New Zealand fantasy writer is the children’s and young adults’ author, Margaret Mahy. Her imagination is superb. My younger contemporary Pip Adam is also extraordinary. She is very difficult to describe but what she does best is the deep desperation of precarious lives, and the salvaging of self by strange transformations.
Yanes: Your recent novel is The Absolute Book. What was the inspiration for it?
Knox: The Absolute Book owes its existence to my sense of coming back to life and pleasure as time and events intervened between me and some bad years. I wanted to capture that sudden freedom from responsibility, but with indelible memories of the strictures of responsibility.
Me and my husband did a lot of traveling right after my mother died (of ALS). I was struck by how being in an “afterwards” didn’t have to mean getting on with life – but just being in life. I was interested in that, in all our walking through the world, and how the further we walked, the bigger the world became.
When I started to think what to do with this feeling, I thought about a book, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which I read at sixteen and has never been far from my mind. A funny, silly, awesome, grand, moving, suspenseful, intricate, devious, antic, transcendent book. A strange book, and also necessary. That sense of necessity and strangeness seemed the place to aim.
My scholarly hero, Taryn, is stuck in grief at her sister’s death, deeply sad and deathly tired. Her sorrow and mistakes are the centrifugal force of the novel. She pulls everything towards her. And some of the things she pulls towards her have their own gravities, are whole other worlds, with green roads to walk. And, as sure as the foreign gentleman in chapter 1 of The Master and Margarita is the devil, The Absolute Book was always going to be a full-throttle fantasy.
Yanes: While developing The Absolute Book from idea to final manuscript, was there an unexpected character or subplot that took on a life of its own?
Knox: I really enjoyed Raymond Price. In the early days of my writing the book Jacob Berger was MI5. I’d done research including reading a lot of British spy fiction, like Stella Rimington, who was the boss of MI5 and should know her onions. But I never felt I was getting to see the fact of MI5 behind the fiction. Even the non-fiction seemed fictional. There appeared to be a basic implausibility and alienation about MI5’s expression of ideas about itself. It seemed to me the inauthenticity was the key thing. But I realised I couldn’t make that work with a point of view character. So, Jacob became a police detective, which worked better to a tie him into Taryn’s story. But I kept Price (who is actually MI6) because he wasn’t a point of view character and if the reader got a sense of him inventing his self and his ideas about the world that was fine by me. He was such fun to do.
Yanes: In addition to Taryn Cornick being a great character, she and the other characters in The Absolute Book have great names. What is your process for selecting a character’s name?
Knox: I have a few guides for names. It’s best if the characters who appear often have names that are easy to say, easy to read out loud and don’t slow things. A whole lot of important characters in The Absolute Book have only one name. I had to resort to the honorifics like ‘little god of the marshlands’ to accentuate very formal moments. And I had fun with that. I wanted Taryn to have an unusual name – and for her surname, Cornick, to be South of England. “Shift” is descriptive, and a nod to the great ape in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle.
Yanes: The Absolute Book takes readers to England, New Zealand, Purgatory, and a magical fairyland. When you were in the process of building these various worlds how did you make sure they would all still fit in the same story?
Knox: What I wanted was a book that seemed to be opening out into an epic as we understand fantasy epics but, like a good mystery, keeps doubling back and deepening the discoveries and the experiences of its characters. I wanted the book to have very different kinds of people in it, a sense of the far-flung, of different sorts of lives, but to remain concentrated on just a few of them, intimately.
I knew I was going to write about fairyland before I set out, and I had an idea about fairyland being made out of a piece of a Hell, invaded and repurposed in a time before its people—demons—had to deal with fallen angels or damned souls. I wanted to write a story in which the hells and heavens and various gods would be equivalent—though only a few would appear. But Taryn’s father gets a glimpse of the fields of Elysium—just so the reader knows it’s all there. Everything is there though you only get to see some of it. The heavens, hells, purgatorial places, the worlds where souls live, and the ones where bodies live, are all fanned out around the hub of the Sidh, and tied to it by gates. Jacob imagines all the worlds as a walled garden with the Sidh as a central garden, but it’s more like boats tied to a single anchored boat. This is the reality that Neve and Shift and Hugin and Munin are used to, and their sense that this is the natural order is supposed to make the reader feel the same.
Also, when it comes to making things work together, it is all about atmosphere. From the moment Taryn imagines her sister running on the road under the tunnel of oaks on the night she was killed, and imagines the trees as witnesses, the narrative voice of the book is tied up with those trees (and sedges, and fruit trees, and alpine thorns) and their green prayer.
Yanes: Finally, when people finish reading The Absolute Book, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Knox: A sense of the great good of the margins, the marshlands, the places of change.
That it’s possible to come back to life—without disavowing sorrow or mistakes.
That today can’t know what tomorrow will need.
That people don’t have to be all good – be pure – to be instruments of good.
That the world isn’t ours, and it’s made up of many worlds.