Wake is that rich sort of novel that keeps changing and enlarging without ever losing its urgent narrative pull. It begins with horror—Elizabeth Knox practising what she has called effects that inspire fear—as the inciting calamity exerts its grip on Kahukura and the baffled survivors.
As the characters become acquainted with the invisible monster that lives among them, feeding on their sadness and shame, the novel becomes much larger. Preying on their vulnerabilities, the monster forces its victims to become violent and self-harming and unsociable. In this deadly pattern of influence, it enlarges the moral capacities of the story, opening a conversation about grief and hurt and their capacity to unmoor us from our established personalities and ways of behaving.
But Knox has stressed, in her illuminating essay on the writing of Wake, that the monster and its actions are not simply allegorical. It’s a real monster; what interests her is the response of the characters to its disastrous visit.
I found this an intriguing challenge for a writer: giving shape to an invisible force in a novel. The monster cannot be seen, yet its presence is made awfully palpable. To Sam it manifests as a ‘wind’, a tower ‘made up of everything it had destroyed—deaths—moments of miserable dying.’ Later we see it playing with Warren in the last moments of his life, ‘passing back and forth through Warren and pushing him, like a cat bored and disgusted by a half-dead mouse.’
These combined effects had me gripped by this novel and fascinated by its craft. I asked Knox three questions how it was put together.
LP: You’ve said that writers of non-realist fiction must ensure their world-building is ‘logical, consequential and vivid.’ In other words, it might be a fantastical world, but it must feel completely real and believable. In a novel like Wake, where there are so many new concepts for readers to grasp—the No-Go and its workings, the monster that can’t be seen, and the mysterious ‘man in black’—how do you make sure that those elements of the world are adequately explained without overpowering the story?
EK: What I wanted to do was have inventions that gradually reveal how they work in relation to one another: the madness to the monster, the monster to Myr, doing all he can, quarantining the monster in the No-Go, which is both quarantine and trap. Then there's Sam, a trap inside a trap. These were all devices, and they had to be logical, plausible, metaphorically rich, but what I was most interested in were the conditions of existence all this invention would light up and throw into high relief: the condition of being horrified and helpless, being left to cope, having to be the responsible one in difficult circumstances.
And Sam's alienation, the tormenting difference in the conditions of her existence. Sam is like anyone whose life was ever shaped by a secret imposed on them, a secret of scarcely describable oddity. For instance, anyone with a family that requires lots of explaining, and imagination on the part of the person listening to the explanation, like the hearing child of deaf parents. I mean, what is that like?
"If you throw in monsters, mayhem, force fields and aliens
then there's a danger ..."
The challenge for me in using all these inventions is that readers used to horror and science fiction are also often accustomed to zipping along in the slick channel of those genre's tropes, as they understand them. And the reader of literary fiction is used to highly literate texts appearing in the right clothes for the occasion. If you throw in monsters, mayhem, force fields and aliens then there's a danger the reader of literary fiction will think they're reading something a little uncouth, unpolished, or simply inappropriate.
So the balance of too much to too little information for the audience isn't a very helpful way of thinking about the task, because the needs of any audience of a hybrid or interstitial work like Wake are going to vary hugely. What I had to think of were the needs of the work. And I have a few aesthetic (I guess) guidelines. I think that if the invention is largely fresh and original, the fun of figuring out how things work will keep all readers of appetite and curiosity reading. Then again, if a trope or myth I choose to use has a few useful readymades to it, I don't mind that either – so long as that's only part of the story. So the desert island device of the No-Go is recognisable as an example of what get called "bubble" stories (the best and purest of which is the German film Die Wand).
But my personal tic with inventions in speculative fiction – mine, not other people's – is that I like things that seem to be different elements to turn out to be related. Partly because of my feelings about probability. What are the chances that your mass-insanity, entropic barrier, man in black, and stagey "split" girl aren't causally related, and in the same place because there's a crisis for which someone has prepared? And how probable is it that a sentient being made of soil, and a dream-haunted bit of territory, aren't somehow related? It is a kind of tidy-mindedness in me, but it's mostly my easily offended sense of probability. I like my inventions to be as probable as possible; so, as consistent as possible in their relation to each other and the novel's world.
And the novel having a strong sense of a world is the last bit of my balancing act. I love strong observation in writing (when that's not all it does – you know, be wonderfully observed but not add up to much!). I'm interested, or possibly obsessed, by phenomena, weather, plants, machines, landscape and the uses of the land, the way stuff works and people behave. But I'm not putting my real details into place with tweezers, like a skilled sushi chef with a garnish. My invention is marinaded in the real, the real has soaked in, till each thing imparts flavour to the other.
LP: A descent into moral barbarism among survivors tends to be a cliche of stories involving catastrophe. Characters quickly become selfish and violent; they shoot and stab and sometimes even eat each other. In Wake you appear to deliberately challenge those expectations, showing instead ‘how good, and tender, and civilised, the survivors were, despite the accepted wisdom about mobs, and riots, and the dissolution of the social contract that sets in whenever disaster strikes.’ Did this criticism come out of a frustration with the cliches of such fiction, or a determination to honour, as you’ve written in your essay, the courage and dignity that people can show when ‘tough shit’ strikes?
EK: There's a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, which gives accounts of heroic helping and cooperation, altruism and community-mindedness, both short term and sustained, in various historic catastrophes, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. It talks about effort and trouble taken and the deep satisfaction and sense of purpose reported by the people who rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. People who got to learn what a common purpose is, and how meaningful it can be. It’s a book that's a remedy to the social Darwinism that – completely unexamined – informs the world view of everyone who approves of where we are now with the poverty gap and disenfranchisement of the poor. People who think that most people are naturally selfish and self-interested, so shrug if they are, or society is.
Part of how I worked out what would happen to the later survivors in terms of their survival of that final period of moral threat (following the day of physical threat, and weeks of psychological threat) was imagining how they'd recover afterwards. So, Oscar, whose happy boyhood was interrupted, would take a long time to find his feet, partly because he wasn't responsible, or implicated, and wasn't given anything to do. The adults kept thinking of his parents. They put Oscar up on a shelf, basically. They kept saying, "Never mind that.", "Don't worry about it". Not good parenting of a teen. Jacob and Theresa would be okay, because they did their best (and Jacob had a generally forgiving and self-forgiving understanding of the impossibility of getting everything right, which would help).
On the other hand, Belle was going to have uncomfortable moments of remembering putting kākāpō before people (she was right to do so, but it was one of those costly, no-virtue-in-being-right choices). Bub was going to remember cracking. He'd have to adjust his ideas about himself. And William, formerly cool and closed off, was going to come out of it all grieving (again), but actually better able to live an emotionally open life. (He and Oscar would also get some joy from the whole "we're not alone in the Universe" thing.)
LP: I was intrigued by your decision to site a kākāpō sanctuary in the heart of the novel’s geography and drama. This predator-proof reserve becomes a constant source of anxiety and, later, a flashpoint of conflict. It’s revealing that it is this site of ecological preciousness that becomes so morally and spiritually important, and not, say, a church. Here the horror novel seems to enable the project of spiritual questioning that you discuss in your essay, giving us the chance to talk about what, these days, is most sacred.
EK: I want to just say "Yes" to question three. "Yes, good noticing. Thanks."
LP: Wake uses multiple points of view in its first section, providing access to the story through the eyes of more than a dozen characters, gradually concentrating on a smaller number of viewpoints. Initially I found this unusual, almost a challenge. What did this technique offer you that a more limited point of view did not?
EK: Multiple third person is a characteristic of post-war US horror, especially Stephen King. I wanted to begin with something of the tone of King or Koontz or Straub. The ordinary folks in a small town beset by an evil and adamant unknown. I was going, "Let’s see how this plays out and what I can do with it and what it can mean." It wasn't a post-modern genre-busting gesture – those have to be really good to pass muster with me, i.e. Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods. I was interested in writing a true horror novel that used the serious, powerful things in horror, which is a place where a reader will encounter stories about death, loss, and the annihilation of self.
Fergus and I had several conversations about whether the multiple third person opening also required an eye-of-God, something helpful and reader-reassuring. So, there was one, but it doesn't now open the book, though it does close it. That eye-of-God remains in a few places, rising like a rock out of the deep ocean – signally in the passage "What are our fears? They're the only birds left in the air..." But that's quite far into the book. There isn't more eye-of-God fiddle-faddle in the novel because my final rewrite of Part One made it clear who the key characters were: the ones with long passages by themselves, my tent poles, Theresa, Bub, William, with Sam thrown in near to the end of Part One, with a problem that's a bit different than everyone else's mad-people/mysterious barrier one; that is, the pre-existing problem of her inexplicable life. Sam gets fewer words than Theresa, Bub and William in the opening, but a whole new angle on the story.
So the novel starts like a baton race, with Theresa, Bub, and William running longer legs. I wanted it to be like a race, or flight anyway. And for it to be immediate, narrowly focused, step-by-step precise. The reader gets immersed in what the characters witness and try to make sense of, according to their very different selves, but hopefully the reader also gets a sense that the events are blindingly bigger than the people. So that's the opening, then the survivors regroup and push back against the events with their personalities and feelings, and by building nests, like the kākāpō, who after all don't know they're endangered. That's what I was after: the cold flood of one danger after another, then the birds come back to the forest and start going peep. "Peep? Hello?", hopefully.