Pip Adam has just released her debut novel, I'm Working on A Building (Victoria University Press, 2013), a fascinating book that follows a range of characters who are obsessed with building, engineering, and the built world. We ask her a few questions about the book, the characters (main protagonist, Catherine, is a female engineer), the fact that the story is told backwards, and what she's going to build next.
When did you start writing I’m Working on a Building, and what were the first sparks of inspiration for the novel? The first thing I wrote toward I'm Working on a Building was a story which became the first chapter of the book. It was about a male engineer who had just got back from overseas and was angry and frustrated. He was working on a bridge. The reason he was working on a bridge was because I'd been talking to my friend Shaun, who's an architect, but before being an architect had worked on the Otira Vidauct. I'd gone to ask him architecture things, because I thought I was going to be writing a story about architecture, but we started talking about Otira and how it was built and I got quite obsessed with big built things. I think in a lot of ways that's where the first spark came from, big things. I've always liked Romantic literature and the idea of 'awe' and the sublime, and when Shaun was talking about how deep they had to dig to found Otira and how high they had to build, it all seemed exceptionally 'Ozymandias' and Pleasuredome-esque. I remember walking home from lunch with Shaun and being suddenly and very aware of the bigness of the buildings in the city and how it felt to be small in the presence of bigness. I think writing big built things served a practical purpose as well. I recently re-read Frankenstein and found that bit that explains that Frankenstein made the monster so big because it was easier to sew him together at that scale and I think possibly that's another reason I chose to write big things first. The engineering in big things is magnified in the same way I guess a big hand is easier to create than a small hand. Also, a lot of big things become stripped back in design to their engineering, there is less overt ornamentation (of course this is isn't always true but there are plenty of examples of this). Big built forms often become quite expressive of their engineering and the forces at play in them because often you want to optimise materials.
What fascinates you about the built world? I really like how completely different from us the built world is and how we often try to understand it in terms of ourselves. I like that weird thing that we build these things but we have no idea of the experience of an inanimate object - we probably wouldn't even credit it with an 'experience'. There is this strange thing that we often try to give buildings our experience. There's a kid's book called The Town That Got Out of Town by Robert Priest which is about a group of buildings who go on vacation. Which seems fanciful but we kind of do the same thing in a lot of grown up art — in Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather, the bridge collapses because Alexander has fallen morally — it is a symbol of him and in that way kind of becomes a surrogate for him. If you search for 'houses that look like people' there are all these amazing website with houses that look like celebrities, like Hitler, like Hillary Clinton. I think this way of thinking for me stems from this thing my mother said to me when I was really young which was, How do you know the red you see is the same as the red I see? And that kind of blew my tiny mind. I have no idea what it's like to be anyone else and that's a lot of what my writing is about, trying to work out what it's like to be someone, especially someone I don't understand or agree with or like. My mum's comment really early one led me to think, What does a sheep see when a sheep sees red? And that probably led to me being vegan. The buildings are a place where I can sort of take that to a ridiculous extent. It's a bit like Solaris. There is a point where there is experience so far outside my human experience that I can't imagine it. I guess I like the way buildings look still but are alive with forces, they're really busy and we don't see it and this led me to think, what does that feel like? But then I thought, What use is the word 'feel' when I'm thinking about buildings?
When did main protagonist Catherine first start to assert herself in the story? The main character of this story was a man, for ages, for drafts and drafts. I find men easier to write than women, I think largely because, to my shame, I've read more male writers than female writers and I had sort of 'masculised' my aesthetic, if that makes sense. Gosh, I'd love to fight with someone about the idea of a 'masculised' aesthetic, I'm not sure I even believe in that now that I've written it. Anyway, so I was writing away at this male character and I think I was doing NanoWrimo at the time, so it was words, words, words, not thinking (which is always good for me), and all of sudden I wrote 'she'. So I went back and corrected it but it just kept being 'she' and after a while I thought, Of course! She's Catherine. She's named for Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. I once heard someone say, There's not a likeable person in that book. And I really love it for that. I also love the name Catherine because it can be shortened in so many ways: Kitty, Kate, Cat.
The book is told chronologically in reverse. Can you talk a little about the novel’s structure? The novel's structure was a problem. I wanted to keep it fractured, I didn't want to tell it from one point of view, and I wanted to take out the 'connective tissue'. I guess I kind of wanted people who read it to piece it together, to build it I suppose. But the order was a problem, at first it was scattered around, it just flew from one time to another, but that never worked. Then it reached a final cut of sorts where it went forward chronologically. I was never totally happy with that but I think that might be how I sent it to VUP. Then I had lunch with Laurence Fearnley and I was grumbling (that's usually what happens, I grumble), and she said, Why not run it backwards? And it was like a bolt of very good lightning. I emailed Fergus immediately and said, Don't read it, I want to try something. And I rewrote it backwards and really liked it. It maintained that fractured feeling but I liked the way you had to make sense backwards. I have a friend who finished it the way it is then read it from back to front (which is forward). I have this kind of secret evil hope people might do that.
You bring a great sense of immediacy to the material and built world. It’s pretty fascinating that solid forms have a stress limit, and that they can slip beyond repair in an instant. In what ways are you interested in the tension between the short-lived and the enduring? A book I fell quite in love with while I was writing this is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I loved the idea that a lot of the things we've built will last longer than us. On a totally different tangent, there's a section of this book which talks about how mimic birds — parrots, miners — might carry on the human language long after we've all gone. I do like the idea that things we think will last often don't and the things we throw out last forever.
What are you building at the moment? I am really enjoying working without any idea of what I'm working on. If that makes sense. When I first started the MA at IIML I spent a lot of time writing scenes rather whole stories and I am sort of doing that again. I have a couple of obsessions which I'm writing around at the moment, one is sea mammals and the other is the Bhagavad Gita. I'm particular interested in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I also got to see a killer whale this year and that just seems to have got stuck, particularly the texture of its skin. Yes, so slipperiness and Krisha. And hairdressing. Brent, my partner, has nicknamed the new project 'Krishna Mermaids of Fashion'. So we'll see how that goes.
What are some of your favourite books of the year? I hate doing these, because I always miss something I loved out, but here goes. A real stand out for me this year was Carl Shuker's Anti Lebanon: A Novel. Its' a stunner. I also really enjoyed Max Gate by Damien Wilkins. It's such a clever book but it's also really affecting in a way that's stayed with me. I'm reading Moby Dick at the moment and that has been a revelation. It messed with me for about 200 pages, I was so frustrated with it, I felt so stupid, then there was this bizarre turn around chapter for me and I think it might be the best book I've read, like ever. Another thing I got to read this year, which is not a book exactly, is an excerpt from the project Kirsten McDougall's working on. It was really exciting and I can't wait to read more of it. I also discovered Frankie Samuels' work (because I'm always late to the party) and I've been really enjoying that. Oh, and I also read Annamarie Jagose's In Translation. Overall, I think I've had a year of repeatedly thinking, I didn't know we wrote books like this here. Which, while being a bit embarrassing, has been really exciting and inspiring.
Pip Adam completed a PhD at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012. Her PhD project explored how engineers describe the built environment. She received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand New Generation Award in 2012 and her first collection of short stories, Everything We Hoped For, won the NZ Post Best First Book Award in 2011. Read more about Pip Adam here.