Before we start the interview, Thomas Pors Koed, whose book of short fictions, No Relation, has just been published by Titus Books, makes it clear that he isn’t about to provide information of a biographical nature. I’m not sure whether this extends to details such as the location in which the interview took place, but I suspect it might.
TPK: I have always tried to be scrupulously uninteresting, at least in the biographical sense. If I have occasionally fallen short of this ideal in other areas it is not through lack of trying.
AS: Can we talk about your new book, No Relation…
TPK: I do share a name with the person who wrote that book, even if I no longer share any cells - it was written between ten and seven years ago - so I have ended up being the one expected to justify it, at least to those who think it should be justified.
AS: Do you have a problem with that?
TPK: The sense of remove is enjoyable.
AS: Do you feel qualified to talk about the book?
TPK: Talking about it is the qualification.
AS: No Relation is a book of short stories. They’ve been described as having been written “against the grain of contemporary New Zealand fiction”. How accurate a description is that?
TPK: If there’s a grain, I’m against it. Not that I am exactly reacting to the grain – it’s constitutional. One of the best comments I’ve had about the book so far was that reading it was like reading sandpaper. Sandpaper can be effectively applied against the grain or it can be more painfully applied against your skin, especially cumulatively. It depends on the result you want. We should have done a written interview so I didn’t make any jokes. I recognise that there is not much New Zealand fiction that applies itself to exploring the writing and reading of fiction in the way that some of the stories in this book apply themselves to exploring the writing and reading of fiction.
AS: In what way?
TPK: I wanted to challenge the various expectations that readers bring to reading fiction, and the various assumptions and presumptions they make when reading fiction.
AS: Such as?
TPK: For instance, and it’s rather a broad instance, the assumptions and presumptions a reader makes in completing a text with elements drawn from their own mind, almost always without realising they are doing so.
AS: What do you mean?
TPK: A reader surrenders the contents of their own mind to the authority of the author, who rearranges these contents into new patterns without inputting anything new other than the pattern. But because the contents, so to call them, of what we like to think of as our minds are both adhered to other contents and extremely elastic, the effect of reading a text is always wider than what the text authorises. Whether this is a necessary or merely an inevitable part of reading is unimportant compared with the task of defining just where the line is drawn in the struggle between the author and the reader for control of the text, or for control of the edge of the effect of the text.
AS: I’m thinking of that passage about Hamlet’s ears in your story ‘Milk’.
TPK: Yes. Strictly speaking it isn’t any of our business as readers to even think of Hamlet as either having or not having ears, as they aren’t mentioned in the text. We aren’t authorised by the text to think about Hamlet’s ears, but we always bring more to reading than is authorised by the text. I quite enjoy getting readers into trouble when they do this.
AS: In quite a few of the stories, I’m thinking of ‘Passenger’ or ‘Leather’ or ‘Dry’, when reading them you suddenly realise that you haven’t registered a vital bit of information, even though this has been pivotal to the story all along.
TPK: No spoilers.
AS: The withholding of information by the author, a narrator or by some other character seems common to the formulation and effect of many of the stories. The collection is called No Relation, after all. Why do you do this? Do you do this on purpose?
TPK: [Laughs] Yes, I do this on purpose, even though it can’t be helped. It is the suppression rather than the provision of information that makes fiction different from actuality. Actuality is so overwhelmingly full of detail that we are unable to think about it without suppressing the vast majority of stimuli that assail us. In fiction, this suppression has been done for us by the author, but the text is always a contested membrane between the pressure of what has been withheld by the author in order to potentise the text and the pressure of what is welling up in the reader in response to the text but not authorised by the text.
AS: What, specifically, were you trying to do?
TPK: I wanted to test the potencies of this exclusion. I wanted to test how characters, and how readers, are affected by what is not related, by what is withheld, by what has been potentised by exclusion or by the impossibility of inclusion. I'm reading that from the blurb.
AS: The greater the exclusion the greater the potency?
TPK: The greater the pressure on each side of the membrane. The sharper the tools. The more intense the struggle between author and reader for control.
AS: And if the membrane ruptures?
TPK: What could be better than that?
AS: When David Mitchell spoke recently at the Auckland Writers Festival, he said that he wrote best when he felt that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Can you relate to this?
TPK: I write best when I have bitten of so little that if I do not constantly worry the particle with my tongue I will lose it somewhere in my mouth or swallow it by accident.
AS: Does this apply to the stories in No Relation?
TPK: The particles are small but they could be smaller.
AS: Now I’m going to ask you the stupidest possible question, the question all writers get asked, just because I don’t think you should be exempt, and I want to see your response.
AS [affecting earnest voice]: Where do you get your inspiration from?
TPK: [laughs] I suppose the word ‘inspiration’, if you strip away all the quasi-spiritual connotations, refers to something coming in from outside, an intrusion. I seem to be constituted so that when something intrudes upon my awareness, verbal antibodies are released, latch onto it and begin to break it down, to nullify it.
AS: So your writing is a defence against inspiration?
TPK: Writing is an immune response.
AS: Is there, then, no stimulation without irritation?
TPK: Not in my case.
AS: And if all was well there would be no reason to write?
TPK: That’s impossibly hypothetical, but I suppose I wouldn’t disagree with you. Without your pains you wouldn’t know you existed. Perhaps writing is an attempt to get to that point, an attempt to sublimate the obstacles to cessation or release or whatever you want to call it into stories, to abstract our problems to the point that we gain the illusion of if not control at least of comprehension, or if not of comprehension at least of the ability to formulate questions that seem to help us to think about these obstacles in a way that focuses and then releases our frustration with them.
AS: Do you have to write, then, in order to stop writing?
TPK: Do I have to answer questions in order to stop answering questions?
AS: How much do the stories in No Relation draw from your own life?
TPK: The stories in No Relation are not at all autobiographical, although there is a fairly accurate description of my slippers in ‘Beyond Saturn’. Having said that, though, I must say that biography is only particular on the surface. The things that give literature its valency, such as anxiety, primarily anxiety, are transpersonal. Only the specifics are personal. The specifics are the means by which we communicate our attempts to grapple with our shared anxiety, or whatever. The specifics in these stories have no relation to my biography.
AS: Apart from your slippers.
AS: So you don’t think of literature as a mirror?
TPK: I don’t like metaphors.
AS: You’ve done nothing but use metaphors throughout this interview.
TPK: If it’s my mirror, I want to look at what’s behind me so I need to duck out of the way. If I glimpse myself I would rather do so in someone else’s mirror and catch myself as a stranger.
< Photo: A. Szrak
Cover image (above): Meg Cranston