Thomasin Sleigh's debut novel Ad Lib has just been published by Lawrence & Gibson publishing. The novel follows the surreal journey of Kyla Crane, who inherits a reality TV series after the death of her mother, celebrity singer Carmen Crane. The novel asks such probing questions as, how do we grieve when we’re under constant watch? Can inherited celebrity ever lead to a good life? We ask Sleigh about the novel's characters, the theme of inheritance that runs through the story and her recent reading highlights.
1. How would you describe Carmen Crane in a few words?
Absent, melancholy, conflicted.
2. How would you describe her daughter Kyla Crane in a few words?
Reticent, prop-like, grieving.
3. What drew you to explore the idea of inheritance in the context of reality TV, pop culture and mass media?
I'm interested in the children of celebrities, and the idea that fame can be passed down through family, as if the child of a celebrity inherits all the people who knew about, or had seen, their parent. There is something weighty and debilitating about this progression, and I was interested in writing this out. The first idea to write about a reality TV series also threw up a weird problem: how do write images into text? How do you really describe images? I tried to make this evident in the passages about filming and editing. Words are quite terrible things to describe images in many ways, and I wanted their limits to be evident to the reader.
Ad Lib is also concerned with privacy, which is one of the pressing concerns of our current moment, and is only going to become more contested. Writing about reality TV and familial inheritance seemed like an interesting framework in which to explore the erosion of privacy, and the effect that this can have on subjects.
Photo: Thomasin Sleigh
4. Did you know early on when writing the novel that the main character would be heir to a reality TV show rather than the family silver?
Yes, I've known I wanted to write about reality TV for a while now, but it took me a while to figure out how to go about it. I realise reality TV is an ingrained part of our culture now, and is nothing exceptionally new (Survivor started in 2000), but I'm still fascinated by the way it has its own special rules of narrative construction, and the activity of people 'acting' as themselves. I think some of the rules of reality TV have seeped out into other parts of our lives too: the way in which we cultivate and enact our online selves. Ad Lib also looks at the level of agency between subjects and editors—this is a classic postmodern trope, but I wanted there to be a kind of editorial struggle in the text, and lots of people writing and reading within the story.
5. You have a background as an art writer and curator. What aspects of your visual arts experience do you think had an important impact on Ad Lib?
I think that my background in art history and writing about contemporary art is especially evident in Ad Lib. I was thinking the other day that Ad Lib reads a little like some art criticism that has lost its subject somewhere along the way. There is an important vein in contemporary visual arts which explores the mutability and truth-value of images, and this idea is at the core of Ad Lib. I think I've also been influenced by contemporary artists who explore the construction of narrative. Ad Lib is full of tangents (ridiculously long stories) and dead ends, but I hope that there is enough linear clarity for the reader to not get too annoyed with me! Getting this balance right is very tricky.
6. What are you working on at the moment?
I'm just getting over the busy launch week of Ad Lib. I was back in at Rebel Press on the weekend, working with Murdoch from Lawrence & Gibson to make some more copies of Ad Lib, because we sold a good number at the launch. I'm also prepping for another project I work on with my friend Sarah. Old Hall Gigs is a roving series of variety night concerts in old halls around Wellington, and we've got the next one coming up on 22 March at Aro Valley hall.
So, not much writing. I'm happy to wait a bit for some sound or topic or conversation to spark the idea for my next book. I've also got some ideas scratched down in my little notebook that I need to start thinking about.
7. What have been your recent reading highlights?
I've been getting through some of the books I was given for Christmas. Like many New Zealanders, I read The Luminaries over the summer, and I thought it was superlative. I also just read Geoff Dyer's The Colour of Memory. He is one of my favourite writers because he isn't constricted by genre or plot, in the conventional sense. The Colour of Memory is a series of beautifully written vignettes, which at first appear quite light, but have a lot to say about politics, race, and creativity, all done with a deft touch.
Ad Lib is Thomasin Sleigh’s first novel. The novel expands on her previous writing about art through its focus on images and visual culture. She regularly contributes to The Lumière Reader, and has written about art for many publications and galleries in Australasia including Eyeline, Un Magazine, Runway and Urbis.