My interview with Lloyd Jones on A History of Silence – The Monthly Book for September

Transcript: Lloyd Jones in Conversation with Ramona Koval

Watch the interview here.

RAMONA KOVAL: Lloyd Jones, welcome to the Monthly Book.

LLOYD JONES: Thank you, Ramona

RK: Well, you and I have known each other for probably 20 years or so. Would it surprise you to hear me say that writing a memoir would not have been very high on my list if I’d been asked what your next book was going to be?

LJ: I’d have said exactly the same. It’s a surprise to me as well.

RK: How did it happen?

LJ: Well, the earthquake actually. It sort of seems inevitable now that I’ve written it. That of course it had to be written. But I didn’t know that until the earthquake that struck Christchurch on February 22, 2011. I was completely captivated by this event and went down there as soon as I could and walked the landscape – a very broken landscape. It quickly became apparent that it was a city that had forgotten its past, or that had forgotten it sat on this very seismic area. The people of Christchurch used to joke at Wellingtonians’ expense, saying, “How could you live in Wellington?” You know, ‘cause we are the earthquake capital. Christchurch was always thought to be very benign, stable and conservative in every way, even the natural world. So it was a great surprise, a great shock actually, that that happened. As I walked around this landscape to see the foundations, it quickly became a story about forgotten foundations.

RK: Because you could see the foundations everywhere?

LJ: Absolutely. It was like a postcard from the past with liquefaction squelching up from underneath the earth.

RK: So liquefaction is where the soil and water is moving like quicksand?

LJ: Well, worse. When the soil is shaken, it turns to liquid amazingly quickly. And that did most of the damage actually. You had buildings sitting on what you assumed to be solid foundations but as soon as the ground shook up, it turned to liquid, and one side of the building sank. So there was that. Also, what struck me was the wilful forgetting: the city had forgotten that what it was sitting on was swamp and wetlands. In so many ways, I was being nudged back to considering my own foundations. I went down there with my novelist’s hat on as well.

RK: Thinking, There’s going to be a story here?

LJ: I know, I mean, it’s appalling, isn’t it? [laughing]

RK: But it’s true; it’s honest.

LJ: Well, it wasn’t so much that, to be honest. I was profoundly emotionally affected by this.

RK: You were in Wellington when it happened, watching it on TV?

LJ: Yes, and even just to step back: there was an even bigger earthquake in September 2010 when I was in Europe. I was in France watching the US Open on TV in the morning, and on the ticker tape came across: “Massive earthquake, magnitude 7”. I thought, well, as Christchurch is the source of that news, obviously Wellington has fallen into the sea. Lots of stories travelled up from Christchurch to Wellington over that time. There was a story from my hairdresser: she talked about her aunt. Her aunt had broken her leg a few weeks prior to the earthquake and her leg was in plaster. And after the February earthquake their bathroom was out of action; in the eastern suburbs, all the bathrooms were out of action – all the sewerage pipes were completely destroyed. Everyone had to dig a toilet out in the backyard, but of course she couldn’t crouch down because of the plaster leg. So her husband had to find a deck chair and cut a hole in the bottom so she could sit on this thing. I thought, Well, this is an extraordinary story – quite imaginative and enterprising. I think this is what novelists generally do: you know, they pick something, a lead, a reason to be down there in the first place. And I suppose this is what gave me my imaginative licence to scour the neighbourhoods that I did.

RK: So you went down with the idea for what could have been a novel and you came back with an idea for a memoir that looks at the foundations of your own family. You looked at the brick-by-brick reconstruction of the cathedral and there were numbers on each of the stones that had been removed, so they would know how to put them back again. And you thought to yourself, what?

LJ: Well, this was one of a number of things that were wo

RKing on my imagination and were pushing me towards a memoir. Yes, the basilica on Barbadoes Street was being disassembled, these big stone blocks, and each one was being disassembled in sequence so it could be reassembled. I did begin to think, This is an interesting notion, this whole process of disassembling. This whole city in one way or another was being disassembled, and I began to think, What if I was disassembled? Where would I find the building blocks anyway? I knew I wanted to respond to this event, and the first challenge was to find the language. So the whole language of being disassembled was the key, I think.

RK: Well, I wanted you to read just a couple of paragraphs from the book, which will give viewers a little bit of an understanding of what was going to be disassembled. Could you read us a little?

LJ: “At 20 Stone Street, little was known about anything except spot welding, knitting, rugby and the right time to plant cabbages and put in the tomatoes. The residue of family lore is light. Some of it sticks. But it is like learning an isolated fact, such as Moscow being the capital of Russia. One grandfather was from Pembroke Dock. Mum’s real father was a farmer, but we never hear his name spoken. Dad’s mother died of hydatids. Mum’s mother, Maud, “the dreadful old bag” – I have absorbed that much – made a choice between her man, sometimes described as a leather merchant and a gardener, and her four-year-old daughter and gave Mum away. Some of it is hearsay, barely information, but then a wave washes along the beach removing all trace of the footprints that I have been trying to wriggle my toes into. “At school when asked where I am from, I reply with the name of my street and the number on the letterbox. The teacher smiles. She adores me to pieces. I am so clever. Then I hear someone snigger, and I realise I have given the wrong answer. “Something else was meant by the question. But thanks to Maud and the mysterious farmer and the drowned-at-sea man from Pembroke Dock and the one who died of hydatids, I have arrived into a potholed world.”

RK: Lloyd Jones reading from A History of Silence. You say the family trait was silence.

LJ: Yes, silence in terms of what was admitted to in the past but also in conversational terms. My father was a very inarticulate man. We didn’t have far-reaching conversations over the dinner table or anything like that. I’m trying to find a way to say this that doesn’t sound dismissive of them. They weren’t unintelligent; my father, in particular, just wasn’t very verbal. He struggled actually to make himself understood. My mother always had a keen gauge of the temperature of a room in terms of what might be said. It could be completely an innocent remark that she would take the wrong way; she was tremendously thin-skinned. But there was a history behind that that we weren’t aware of, too. Mum was a bit over the top, neurotic, but what sits behind that is part of the business of this book.

RK: So you were brought up like a single child even though you had older brothers and sisters. Tell us how the family was organised. You had a much older older brother?

LJ: There’s Pat, who’s in her mid 70s now, she’s 17 years older than me. Then there’s Bob, 16 years. And then there was Barbara and Lorraine. Lorraine was only ten years older than me, but you’re absolutely right: there were traces of them all over the house but they had more or less left the premises when I arrived in the world.

RK: Traces in what way?

LJ: I moved into my brother’s bedroom and there were pinpricks on the wall where he’d had his things, and the shadows of where he had hung his posters. There was an old boxing glove in the backyard, you know, it was like a museum, a museum of my siblings. I would find these things and wonder about them, and some of these things, of course, I would adopt to my own purposes.

RK: You’re very evocative of that childhood early in the book, where the house seems like this huge area and the backyard like a forest, and beyond that is this whole world, and it’s very hard to get the measure of things.

LJ: That’s a child’s point of view: the world is enormous. I drove back to look at that house during the writing of this book and of course it’s diminished, nothing like the scale of my imagination. You arrive in the world as a child and trust in the appearance of everything. Silence in that house seemed perfectly normal. The fact that the past was never spoken of seemed perfectly normal. That there were no photographs of my parents as children seemed perfectly normal. That grandparents were never mentioned, all of this. So, wilful forgetting extended beyond the house to the landscape. There was no understanding of what had preceded this new-ish suburb.

RK: You knew your father was an orphan and you knew your mother had been given away by her mother. You were taken on these little drives sometimes by your mother to sit in a car and watch a house. Did you know what that was for?

LJ: No, no. One of the things about writing this memoir is that you go back to events and you re-occupy them with different understanding and hindsight. This was something she did with my sisters as well. She was slightly obsessed about her mother, and her whole view of this woman was very, very negative.

RK: She would drive to her mother’s house?

LJ: Yes, and this was quite a big trip in those days. From the suburbs into the city, 18 km, and she would drive to a street in a city neighbourhood and we would sit in a car. As a child, I’m sitting in the back seat, not quite sure why we were there. But she was waiting for her mother to leave the house so she could catch a glimpse of her. She did this quite a bit with my sisters, and so she kept tabs on her right throughout her life. And when she had her first-born, she actually went right up to the doorstep in the hope her mother would find a way of engaging with her, maybe even embracing her, because here was her first grandchild. Maud sent her away with a ten-shilling note and said, “Never show your face here again.” When my younger sister developed epilepsy, the doctor asked Mum, “Is there a family history?” There’s only one way to find out. This time she rings Maud, and Maud says, “But I have no daughter.” You have understanding of how these things create a persona, how damaging they are on the psyche. Then, when my mother was very old, 90, lying in the stroke ward in the hospital, she had to fill out this admission form with this absurd question: “What is your life’s ambition?”

RK: I still can’t believe that was on a hospital form for an old lady to think about!

LJ: Well, she seemed to think there was still some ambition left, and it was to outlive her mother. And Maud had lived until she was 94, and there was no way Mum was going to make that.

RK: And you made a wonderful decision about how you were going to accommodate that…

LJ: We had her 91st, 92nd, 93rd, 94th [birthdays] all within about six-month period. By the end, I don’t know whether she was aware of us or not, but it worked. She had her moment of triumph: blowing out the candles on her 94th birthday cake.

RK: There was such a history of silence in your family that the doctor had to ask whether anyone had understood that your mother was dying, and had told her.

LJ: Yes, you’re right: when we’re talking about silence, we’re talking about this inability to confront and engage, and basically to be honest and direct. Yes, the doctor had to ask me the question about whether someone had told my mother she was dying. It’s quite a difficult thing to tell your mother, really, and nobody had. And so I broached the subject rather cowardly.

RK: Do you remember what you said?

LJ: “You’re on your last legs, Mum.” And she looked rather dismayed, like telling a child there’s no Father Christmas. The first time I went to tell her I bailed out. She was looking up at me expectantly, and I said, “Would you like a cup of tea?” By the time I came back with the cup of tea, I knew I had to have that conversation.

RK: But you started the conversation in a wonderful way: with the history of the universe.

LJ: This was the second time I went to tell her. I was disappointed in myself, really. It just so happened there was a photograph of Voyager, taking photos of the outer limits of space going back in time, the first snapshots of when the universe began, and of a dying sun, and quite evocative. So I took that along to the hospital bed and we took it from there.

RK: [Laughing] Was she used to you? I suppose she was by then. I wonder whether she knew where it was going what with the dying sun?

LJ: It’s hard to know just how much she engaged with things. I used to read to her, too, and I’m not sure there was a lot of traction; it might have been more her hearing the voice.

RK: This idea that your other grandmother died of hydatids, and that’s why your father was in an orphanage. It doesn’t seem to make much difference whether someone dies of cancer or of hydatids until you think about what hydatids are and the circumstances of that sort of death.

LJ: It was a common way of dying: it was from contact with dogs and from contact with sheep, and a tapeworm is passed on to the human, and enormous cysts grow inside you. You can survive so long as you don’t fall down or there’s no hard impact that would cause a cyst to burst. Then you die a toxic death. It was a surprising common death. When I was growing up, there were hydatids-testing strips everywhere. There are no problems with dogs any more transmitting hydatids.

RK: So how did you get that picture of her death, with all her little children around her?

LJ: In the 1990s my sister Pat started to do a bit of family research, and she got death certificates and names. For the first time, we had names. For the first time we had a sense of where we came from. Not entirely, but we had something. By that point, I simply wasn’t interested. Others had this family mythology but we didn’t, and other people’s family mythologies just seemed so much more interesting. Of course, I was a product of that environment, of wilful forgetting. It’s pretty hard to turn around and suddenly engage with that when you’ve been moulded into a state of indifference. But then, of course, the earthquake. And that was a very visceral way for the appearance of things to be ripped open and the foundations being the story.

RK: The way you write about things beginning to make sense to you in retrospect: when you find the story of your father who was then parcelled out because his mother had died and his father had left. You imagine your father as a young child, going from pillar to post, to foster homes. And then you remember something that happened when you were a young boy: which was your father brought an orphan into your own house.

LJ: Not an orphan, a foster child. He was at the Epuni Boys’ Home, which we used to walk past when I was a child. It was a forbidding sight: high fences, slightly Dicksensian, these poor waifs you could see in the distance. I think I was about nine or ten when this child suddenly arrives in the household. By this time, to recap, my siblings had already left home and so this boy is presented to me as a friend. But I had lots of friends; you know, I had my dog, and so forth.

RK: And your home was your castle. You were in charge of the area?

LJ: It was a bit of an imposition, yeah. But the point of the story was that the arrival of this child was not presented in a way that made sense to me at all. Had I known a bit more about my parents’ upbringings, about foster homes, orphanages and this sort of thing, it would have made complete sense. They were just trying to make a child’s life better. Obviously they’d had this conversation between them.

RK: But not to you. So Stephen arrives and it’s annoying for you because he’s not a happy child, is he?

LJ: Well, it’s almost like receiving a dog from the kennel. I mean, he’s underweight; he pisses on his bed every night; he steals from my friend’s mother’s handbag. He’s just an embarrassment, from the point of view of a ten-year-old. There’s almost nothing at all to recommend this kid.

RK: How long does he stay?

LJ: Somewhere between six and nine months.

RK: And why does he go? Because you object to him?

LJ: I think I kept up a campaign, in retrospect, you know, not against him, but I would go off to my friend’s house and ring up Dad and say, “Is that kid still there?”[laughs] But, no, it didn’t really work out.

RK: There’s a great feeling of landscape in this memoir. As you say, the land rose up and shook, and Christchurch fell. And the land rose up and shook, and the potholes appeared in your own family story. The landscape of whales is important in the family myth, and the Pembroke Dock. This idea that you had a grandfather who was a sea captain and who drowned at sea. He came from this dock and this whole naval thing. Of course, you’re a good writer and you want to go back and see what it is. So you go to Wales, and knowing you, the idea that you go there and get on the trains and you finally get to this place, but when you get there, you can hardly wait to leave on the next train. Tell me about this idea that landscape is somehow related to you. You want to be enclosed by it in a sense, you want to be welcomed by this home away from home.

LJ: Virtually every Antipodean experiences something like this; they go back to the source and expect to be touched or moved or expect to find something that tells them something about themselves. But, in this instance, as a child I used to walk along the hills on the eastern side of the harbour in Wellington and there was always a sense of these very, very stark hilltops that just dropped away to these stony beaches. And there was always a sense, I think I say in the book, that I felt clogged by some other landscape. Years and years later I passed a bookshop in England and there was a book of watercolours open, and I saw the coastline I walked along. And I thought, Gosh, how unusual to see this so far away. Then when I leaned in to see the name of the artist, it turned out to be Pembroke in Wales. And I thought that was very strange. I’m not particularly spiritual or superstitious or anything like that; I just found it very interesting. That made me more determined as much as my grandfather being from Pembroke Dock; I wanted to see that landscape. And so, I’m on the train burrowing into Wales, yes, there are moments particularly in the physical language of the people, I can kind of see the template.

RK: The way they’re standing; the cast of their faces.

LJ: The unfortunate cast of their faces, yes.

RK: What do you mean?

LJ: Well, standing on railway platforms like they’ve been sentenced to stand there for the next 24 years, and they’re out of cigarettes and their wife’s left them and the dog’s been run over and that kind of look on their face, which I kind of recognised myself. That kind of gloom and doom.

RK: Even though you’re feeling quite happy?

LJ: Well, you know, of course. Certainly in response to that. It’s remarkable being in this sort of genetic scrapyard, bits and pieces that make a person.

RK: Why did you want to flee as soon as you’d arrived?

LJ: It didn’t particularly speak to me, that place. The thought of staying over night was a pretty appalling one: it would have meant some dreadful meal in a pub. Actually, when I realised the train was leaving in another 45 minutes, I ran like hell. I stopped in a café and said I have to catch that train, can you give me something. The woman behind the counter said, “Yes, love, we’ve got some fries.” I’m sure there’d been through the vat seven or eight time; they were these bronze things, almost inedible. Yeah, but, look, I just didn’t need to stay there. I don’t think I would have been able to glean anything more from staying there, and in any case my haste to get out of there spoke just as strongly to me, as truly and significantly as finding anything there.

RK: You did later find records of Maud and her divorce from Harry Nash, her husband.

LJ: An Australian.

RK: Sorry about that; he wasn’t one of our finest.

LJ: From Melbourne.

RK: Sorry about that even more. In the National Archives. It’s not a place people might think to look.

LJ: Well, because I knew she’d divorced this guy, and back in the 1920s when the divorce came through, it was a serious business. It was a public occasion, really. Enormous shame. And really why people didn’t want to divorce; people were put up there on a public stage and made to account for themselves. But at the National Archives, I found a 180-page transcript of this trial, which was a goldmine, and it presented an entirely different side of the story about this woman, Maud, who we’d grown up reviling. It contained the story, really, of why she gave Mum away.

RK: We’ll leave that story for readers to read for themselves. But it does bring up the idea about how those whose families are not notable, or who haven’t written down their own reflections or histories, go about finding what happened in the generations before they were born.

LJ: On my father’s side of the family, his mother was a Bibby, and both her parents were illiterate. So nothing gets written down. And if they escape official notice, there are no official forms other than birth and death certificates.

RK: Unless they kill someone, and it’s reported in the papers.

LJ: Yes, yes. Well, in fact the great-grandfather, he was in the papers for assault and suspected of arson as well. So then there’s just a big gap, isn’t there?

RK: The other question is whether we can ever understand the stories of the people who went before us? I mean, how much can we understand, even though you’re at an age now that you can understand why people did the things they did when they were of the same age, 50 years ago or 70 years ago. Can you get the sense of what it must have been like; why they made the decisions they did?

LJ: It requires imagination. You just have to step inside their skin, I think. And no one is wholly bad or wholly good; we’re all a mix of these things, and we respond differently in different circumstances. I don’t think it’s difficult for one human being to understand another, if we’re prepared to look at extenuating circumstances. Why Maud behaved the way she did: you can find plenty of valid explanations.

RK: Is this part of your novelist’s imagination? I wanted to know whether you found the experience of imagining yourself back into the lives of these people, even though they were real people, was it like writing fiction? Was it like writing for characters you’ve created?

LJ: Yeah, you use all the novelist’s tricks. There’s one person there, my father’s father, the man who supposedly drowned at sea – that’s another story that turns out to be absolute nonsense, but it’s a necessary story, like all family mythology is. I’ve decided that family mythology is either there to enlighten or obscure, and this story was to obscure. But all that was known about him was that when his wife, at the time she was lowered into her grave at Karori Cemetery, he was in hospital. And then he leaves hospital, and he ends up in Auckland, where a few years later he remarries. So, how do we get him from the hospital to Auckland? And that’s where the novelist steps in with the imagination. He imagines him leaving hospital, walking into the windy city, around to the railway station, and punching through the tunnel in the hill and entering a new landscape, a succession of new landscapes, which enable him to forget the preceding ones. So that is the novelist at work.

RK: But you just wonder how many of the things anyone knows about their families are products of misunderstandings and misinformation and deliberate blurrings of truth. Which makes you think, how do we know about anything? Not just families but any story somebody tells you?

LJ: Well, “story” is the key word here and it changes according to our position in relation to the events and those we subsequently live in. I mean, that’s why we have history. It’s why history is constantly being rewritten. This is what we know; this is the story we tell, predicated on these facts. Then another generation looks back and finds, Oh no, those facts weren’t quite correct; this was the trigger. It keeps being re-litigated, which makes it interesting.

RK: Do you think that travelling back to the origins of family tells us a lot about who we are and why we are like we are? What did you learn about yourself after doing all this?

LJ: I grew up with this insistence that you were your own creation.

RK: Self-made. Well, your brother was a self-made man, wasn’t he? Australians might not know your brother but he’s quite a figure in New Zealand.

LJ: Yeah, he is.

RK: Because?

LJ: He’s been very successful in property and business and he’s very well known. He used to be a political figure; there are many sides to his life. He’s a public figure. But this notion you could be anything you chose to be was quite a strong and empowering thing. And it was only there because there was nothing insisting on you being one thing or another. You grew up with this notion that you are your own creation, but in fact you’re not. One of the things about this book is discovering some pieces of myself I can see quite clearly in the people that preceded me. That’s been a humbling and exciting discovery, working on just the physical resemblances.

RK: Towards the end of the book, you say you’ve found this picture of your great-grandfather, and you say, “I’ve never felt more unoriginal than the moment I looked upon Richard Evans.”

LJ: Yes, a total stranger. He’s sitting there with my face. Certainly it’s the way the face was arranged, and the smile. I recognise the smile.

RK: Do you think you almost know what he’s thinking?

LJ: Almost. More a state of mind, I think I can recognise. Smiling at the situation he finds himself in.

RK: We’ve talked around this book, and I think I want to say finally something about the way you’ve arranged the narrative. It’s not: “this started like this, and this developed and this developed…” You’ve got a few timelines swinging through it, some history and some discussion about landscape, and your mother’s death happens quite quickly in the book. How did you manage all of these strands?

LJ: It has to do with the narrative approach. I wanted to close the distance between me and the reader. It’s almost a thinking aloud, an interior language, and with an interior language it spares you the tedium of going along a sequential line. Things are connecting when they connect.

RK: Because that’s how we think.

LJ: Yes, and a pattern emerges, evolves, and it’s a very pleasing way to write.

RK: So are you attracted to this style of writing? Can you imagine another slice of your life being meditated upon in this way in some stage in the future?

LJ: Possibly, because I never imagined I would be responding to the earthquake quite the way I did so there’s no reason to think there won’t be something in the future…

RK: Let’s hope it doesn’t require a tsunami.

LJ: Exactly, but I don’t think as autobiographical terms as providing an overarching narrative of life – that’s a bit boring to me. Drilling down according to a particular framework is interesting.

RK: Well, if it’s interesting for you, it’s very interesting for readers. I think it’s a great book; thanks so much for writing it, Lloyd, and thank you for coming in and talking to me at the Monthly Book.

LJ: Thanks very much, Ramona.

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