A Q&A with Elizabeth Knox,
author of The Absolute Book
Arriving with high praise from the likes of Francis Spufford, Deborah Harkness and Laini Taylor, The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox is your next big-read, contemporary fantasy novel. A beguiling tale of sisters, ancient blood, a forgotten library, murder, revenge and a book that might just have the answer to everything, this is the ideal book to completely immerse yourself in. Knox kindly took part in a Q&A with Foyles to introduce her work, and give an insight into her process.
Please tell us about your novel The Absolute Book.
The Absolute Book opens with Taryn Cornick, a woman whose sister was killed, who has an opportunity for revenge fall into her lap, and takes it, despite the fact it’s going to blight both her life and that of the man she persuaded to help her. She walks away from the mess she’s made, with a personal life that’s a leafless tree, but a solid professional life. She’s written a book about the things that threaten libraries, insects, light, damp, fire carelessness and uncaring. Her book is a success and brings her all sorts of attention. Not all of it is good. The detective constable who investigated the murder of the man who murdered her sister is now it is now a very persistent detective inspector. He doesn’t like having a cold case. And it seems that something nasty has taken over Taryn, and won’t allow her to enter the church at her friends wedding, and co-opts her voice to ask people she knows penetrating questions about the ancient scroll box that once belonged in her grandfather’s library. That’s pretty much the setup. The Absolute Book is a fantasy, an arcane thriller, and a recovery narrative. It’s an epic, and a mystery. I think of it as an intimate epic – it has scope, but it keeps deepening the experiences of its characters, as well as having them pursue their quest.
The Absolute Book is the dream for any book lover – a story about the importance of stories and all the ways we pass them on. Was that key strand always in the back of your mind when you started writing? And could you tell us a bit about how the book came about?
While considering the importance of libraries to the story, one thing I thought about was what our lives and culture would be like if we hadn't written things down. The lack of a written language is a key attribute of the Sidhe in the novel – they have perfect memories and long lives and assert the pointlessness of writing things down. They scarcely ever invent anything to entertain themselves. They like poetry produced by humans and accept the necessity to the human poet of having to write things down. But it’s an indulgent acceptance. There's quite a lot of looking down on others that the book doesn't bother to pass judgment on – for example how the demons feel that any people, like Sidhe or humans, who see themselves as individuals rather than purely collectively, are repulsive and untrustworthy. I was interested in imagining alien and unpalatable points of view because it is always worth examining our urge to regard others as alien or unpalatable or inauthentic. I wanted the Sidhe point of view about the futility of writing things down to have integrity, and seem natural to them. However, while they may have perfect memories they do each take their memories to tombs in the end. And they never chance upon reminders of things about themselves they might reconsider – for them there are no nasty secrets in the archives because there are no archives. The character Shift, who is part Sidhe, has picked up on some of this scorn – but as fear. To Shift, who loves books, works on paper seem too vulnerable. So he has people remembering his history for him – a ‘library’ of people who care about him, because he has faith in the care.
The Absolute Book is an expansive book that borrows from genres including epic fantasy, arcane thrillers, and eco-fiction, and over the course of your long career, you’ve written in a huge range of genres. Do you consciously blend genres as you write? And do you think people can be snobby about genre writing?
It makes more sense to start with the second part of the question. Yes I do think people are snobby about genre. I've written at length about how I see the reasoning behind this. I say that what I value as a reader is literature. The only satisfactory definition of literature is that it’s what lasts, what outlasts its moment and is still read. So Georgette Heyer and Raymond Chandler and Daphne Du Maurier are obviously literature. Literature as distinct from literary fiction, which may only be the genre in which literature is more likely to appear, mostly due to its requiring good sentences. So, mostly the snobbery is against genre. But there’s also a snobbery that comes from within genre, from some readers and practitioners who’ve put in the hard yards mastering its environment – which is tropes. It is quite understandable that people will want to see tropes done well. But when doing a thing well turns into doing it properly then I think there’s a danger of building flood defences when it’s the periodic flooding that brings the alluvial soil and keep the whole thing fertile.
As to the first part of your question – I am never setting out to blend genres, I just see the way the story might work best, where it can go, and what it might use to get there. The Absolute Book is primarily a fantasy, arcane thriller, and recovery narrative. The first two go together very naturally – and I prefer my arcane thrillers – by which I mean a novel with a schlolarly hero solving a mystery – not to just hint at the magical and then not go there. So for instance I prefer Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. As for a recovery narrative – I was recovering from some hard and painful years and that's where much of the novel’s real world energy comes from. Recovery narratives can belong in any kind of book. As for shades of other genres in the novel, the scene on the estuary is a deliberate attempt to break out into pure thriller for one chapter (though it’s totally cued up by the story). It’s is basically a homage to Lee Child. My admiration for Lee Child is as profound as my admiration for Georgette Heyer – how do I love them? Don’t get me started counting the ways!
Taryn journeys through some vastly different landscapes: the peaceful English countryside, the utopia of the Sidhe, the grey cities of Purgatory. You teach Worldbuilding at Victoria University – has that influenced your writing? And do you think imaginary worlds can tell us something about our real world?
Because I write fantasy, which is sometimes equated with not putting away childish things, I often feel a need to make an argument for fiction that is full of stuff that is true, while yes less solidly dependent on, I won’t say material facts, because material facts are a whole other thing, or a vast class of things from viruses to black holes. Let’s say the facts of matters, rather than matter. Matters like the political realities that we are always to consider, economic realities that teach us that many things of value have fluctuating values and we have to accept that, no matter how necessary those things might be to our well-being.
Fiction less dependent on the facts of matters might be more able to ask: ‘What if this world as it is and has been since the Industrial Revolution is just now?’ What if this world was very different?
For me the fiction that proposes rule changes in reality, and the world being different, is fun and refreshing, but also that question ‘What if the world wasn’t like this?’ is a necessary moral one.
There are so many references in the book, from Norse and Celtic mythology to the Chronicles of Narnia to Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Could you tell us a bit about the art that has influenced you most?
I’m going to cover the formative things.
Any kind of artist probably has a thing that, when they met it, made them come to life as an artist by inspiring a need to respond, to talk back to it. At eleven my class and the class above mine were bussed off to a prefab in Porirua for a screening of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. Most of the kids acted up, but there we a few of us glued to the screen. What caught me was Shakespeare’s language, which was utterly foreign for about ten minutes then gradually became comprehensible English. Also there was the film itself, the way it opens out from the Globe Theatre, onto a soundstage, then a bigger soundstage, and into a living field for the Battle of Agincourt, then closes down again, to a soundstage, then finally the Globe. The film was a transporting manifestation of being transported. I remember that, after I saw Henry V, I made paintings of knights on horses and heaving battles, many big pages in watercolour, each sheet joined together with Sellotape to make a frieze. I didn’t write anything, because I had dysgraphia (teachers thought I was naughty because I read out loud and read advanced books so how could I have a learning disability?)
And then there was Ray Bradbury – his Martian Chronicles. I would have been around 12. The stories made me feel yearning and nostalgia, whether it was a Martian’s desperate sense of loss, of being only a voice haunting a world of ghosts as thick as fallen leaves; or the astronaut on the Mars mission who keep dreaming of his home – Greentown Illinois. I was still a child and I hadn't lost any people. The reaction Bradbury got from me, when his feelings and experience weren’t talking to anything equivalent in me, was kind of miraculous.
And then there was Ursula Le Guin's The Disposessed and a third of Samuel Delaney’s whole oeuvre. I can still quote passages from The City of a Thousand Suns. Young Delaney was perfect for young me. Le Guin is the great writer of homesickness. The Dispossessed’s hero spends half the novel in a beautiful and comfortable world that’s at the centre of things, and has the riches of many cultures at its fingertips. But he wants to go home to his poor world with its hunger and algae farms, to the hard world that has turned its back on him. To a marginal little place where he can do his best work. If they let him. Even if it isn’t fully acknowledged.
And then shortly after that I picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s the book that made me the kind of writer I am.
Poetry, principally William Blake and W B Yeats, because they were able to stiffen their spines and assume a heroic voice or a prophetic one. I like to have at least one person in every novel who can stand up and speak like a bard.
William Faulkner, attractive for some of the same reasons as Ray Bradbury – the way he writes about loss, about missing things. I also think the puzzling over the language in Faulkner and Shakespeare, when I was at university, went a long way towards fixing my dysgraphia. It was during that time the glass wall between me and the blank page finally completely dissolved and I was able to write more effectively.
Middlemarch – a book for life. It just walks alongside its reader’s life experience.
Many films and television programmes have been touchstones to me but the two I was maniacal about at a formative age were the first two Godfather movies. It was the terrifying joy of watching Michael Corleone, a human being, turn into an archetype. His transformation. I mean apart from all the other stuff that goes on in the movie with the crusty old chain-smoking gangsters et cetera and the poetic time scheme of Godfather 2. Thelma Schoomaker’s editing!
Lastly, all the way through, from when I first read them to now, everything written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy, my warm, funny, superbly imaginative, wise writer-guides.
Elizabeth Knox is an award-winning New Zealand author who has published over a dozen books. Her novel The Vintner's Luck won the Deutz Medal for fiction in the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, while Daylight was short-listed for Best Book in the South Pacific & South East Asian Region of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize. Elizabeth has an ONZM, is an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate, and won the Prime Minister's Award of Fiction in 2019. She teaches World Building at Victoria University and lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her husband and her son.
Author Photo © Ebony Lamb