INTERview with vivienne plumb
- Here is an interview with VIVIENNE PLUMB. Vivienne Plumb is of Australian and New Zealand heritage. Born in Sydney, she came to New Zealand in the mid-1970’s and has remained in New Zealand since (her mother was a New Zealander, born in Wellington). She is presently based in Wellington, where she writes poetry, fiction and drama, and works teaching and mentoring creative writing students. She has been the recipient of several awards including the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award, the Hubert Church Prose Award, a Sargeson Fellowship, and first prize in the N.Z. Poetry Society’s annual competition. She has also received a number of writing residencies both in N.Z. and overseas, including a residency on the University of Iowa’s International Programme (U.S.A.), in 2014 she held the Ursula Bethall writer in residence position at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, and during 2016 she will hold the Michael King/University of Auckland writer in residence position. She has published over fifteen books.
Her play, The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep, is to be published in November, 2016 by Playmarket; and an anthology of her past-published work that will also showcase images from the Auckland artist, Glenn Otto, will be published this year by split/fountain (S/F) publishing (Auckland).
- N: When you begin to write, what approach do you take?
- V: I put pen to paper first of all. I write longhand for a first draft and then begin typing everything into the laptop after that. When I was at primary school they were still teaching pupils to write with pen and ink. Can you imagine? There was a lot of emphasis on the actual shaping of the letters and on learning ‘running’ writing. If we didn’t do it well, we were hit on the hands with a ruler.
- N: What drew you to start writing?
- V: I just started. My mother encouraged me to write and I used to write stories and poems when I was a child. I won first prize in the Australian Gould League of Bird Lovers’ annual poetry competition with a poem about the black swan and when I was about fifteen my mother bought me a manual typewriter (Olivetti ‘Dora’, I think it was). But from nineteen years of age I lived with a partner who wasn’t so interested in encouraging me to write and for a large chunk of time I stopped. I began again later in life, after being accepted into Bill Manhire’s creative writing course at Victoria University, Wellington, which led to my first publication, The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep (short fiction) and that was awarded the Hubert Church Prose prize (for ‘first best book’). That was immensely encouraging and after that I just kept going and now I can’t seem to stop. The original story of The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep was later adapted into a stage play.
- N: You have a background in acting. No doubt this has enhanced your skills as a playwright. Has it shaped your storytelling in other genres?
- V: Yes, I worked as an actor for many years, when I was younger. This is what I was doing during the period I stopped writing. I trained at the Victorian College of Arts, Melbourne. Working in the theatre taught me discipline, and also taught me to be fearless about editing and making changes because theatre scripts can often be really pulled apart and then sewn back together again. I think the ‘storytelling’ came from my dad, Harry. He was a great raconteur, who loved to use real Aussie expressions and loved words in general. He took me to socialist theatre productions in Sydney (where I grew up). He was brought up Catholic, from a large family who were all gregarious and who all had the gift of the gab.
- N: What achievements in your writing career stand out as being particularly poignant?
- V: My writing career has given me some truly wonderful moments and it has been through this career that I’ve been able to meet so many interesting writers and that I’ve been able to travel to a number of interesting places. Launching my first publication, The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep, (University of Otago Press, 1993) at Unity Books, Wellington was really exciting. The (then) manager of Unity Books, Louise Wrightson (now also a writer), made a beautiful display of my book in the Unity window, and I shall always remember that.
- The opening night at Circa Theatre, Wellington, of the first production of my play The Cape (directed by Conrad Newport) was electric, and I felt extremely proud of the four young male actors, Eli Kent, Michael Whalley, Rawiri Jobe and Leon Wadham, who have all gone on to make their own mark.
- In 2004, Creative New Zealand selected and supported me to take up a writing residency at the University of Iowa (U.S.A.) on their International Programme. This was a defining period of time for me. It was so stimulating being among writers from all across the globe and I still have friendships with some of the writers I met there in Iowa City in 2004.
- I was also invited to read at the Vilenica (pronounced ‘Vilenitza’) Literary Festival in Slovenia. This festival is well known in Europe. The keynote event was a reading from the terrific American prose poet James Tate, in the famous Vilenica cave, which we all had to descend down into by iron ladders. Then, trays of special local fruit schnapps were passed around (to keep us warm). Tate was terrific, and as he read bats swooped down from the cave roof and flew around his head! Working as a writer has resulted in some truly unforgettable experiences.
- N: What are you writing now?
- V: I don’t really talk much about what I’m writing although I am always thinking about it. I often work on two projects at once, going back and forth between them. I write new work or make new drafts in the morning, working most days of the week. If I feel I’ve had a good idea I always write the idea down and then put it in a box, and if it still sounds good when I look at it in six months time then I know I have something I’ll definitely (eventually) work on. The important thing is to start, and then the next important thing is to finish, and breathing space can take place somewhere in the middle. I love the actual act of writing but I also enjoy engaging in activities that are quite different from writing: I like swimming, I used to do a lot of gardening (I presently live in an apartment). I’d like to have a dog, and I’d like to learn carpentry. Right now I’m learning another language.
- N: What are you currently reading? Name some authors whose work you admire.
- V: I read constantly, like a person possessed. I hope to die with a book in my hand. Books not only educate but also offer other worlds and encourage dreams and desires. The first book I can remember reading is the Australian environmental classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie about two ‘gumnut’ babies (by May Gibbs). My favourite read for 2015 was The Melancholy of Resistance written by the Hungarian, Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Dense, rhythmical prose that focuses on life in a small town. Subtle, squirmingly outrageous, wonderful.
- N: Finally, what tips would you give someone who's recently started writing? Name some pitfalls to avoid, invaluable resources etc.
- V: Writing can be an enjoyable pastime or hobby. Many try it and enjoy it. But to continue, to gain publication the first time, and then to keep writing and to keep publishing, is a harder road. Working in the arts in New Zealand is a hard road. The wages are not great, and those who work for – and therefore accept – those low wages actually subsidise the arts, making them accessible to all other New Zealanders. Sport seems to get a rather better lick of the ice cream.
- My ‘tip’ would be to advise potential writers to be budgetwise. I often wish I’d trained as a plumber, or maybe a hairdresser. But (ho hum) would I be writing if I had? Pitfalls to avoid: don’t stop writing. The more you do it, the more you discover about your own writing. Invaluable resource: the belief in yourself, the belief in your own work. The poet, Rilke, said that our deepest fears ‘are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure’.
- N: Thank you Vivienne for these delightful answers. Your personality shines through in your thoughtful replies. I wish you all the best for your year in Wellington. Thanks too, for all your help whilst acting as my supervisor at the Hagley Writers' Institute in 2014.