Article first published on the Dunedin Public Library website - 2017
I grew up in Karitane – where the shop is the petrol station and the post office and now recently, the local café too.
As a teenager, my father Terry, would take me each fortnight to learn to glide amongst the hills of Alexandra and Omarama. The view from the skies in summer looking down at the scene is a wide arc, spread with shadows dipped between curves and burnt oranges. And whichever angle you’re facing – maybe upside down if your stomach can manage – the line of the arc is split in two by an expanse of sky, some days textured with clouds.
I was 14 when we first started these trips. My father was an eccentric sort who loved all things that moved: boats, racing cars, motorbikes and planes. With a terrible sense of direction it took me a long time to go solo, but, at 16, the instructor Malcolm sent me up alone. I flew solo just once – it was terrifying and I wasn’t convinced I was good enough at controlling the glider not to crash. My dad watched from the airfield below. He was ill with cancer and passed away that year.
Beneath Pale Water is my first novel. The narrative follows a triangle of three damaged individuals – a sculptor, a vagrant and a model. It’s set in and around coastal and central Otago. It’s important, I think, to tell stories set here, to layer our identities and concepts of home in our narratives.
When my father and I were in the car on the way to the airfield we’d have long conversations about different types of clouds and where the hawks were circling to catch lift – circling in thermal columns of hot air and catching wind drifts pushed between valleys and swept up the sides of ridges. Beneath Pale Water opens with a woman, Delia, staring at a hawk – an extended metaphor in the novel about the trio’s parallel struggles for escape. The sight of Otago from the canopy of the glider made me consider the brevity of the landscape. How we people are so small. As in film - wide shots contrast with extreme close-up shots. Or in the Graeme Sydney painting Auripo Road, where the horizon seems endless in the distance but the letterboxes are in clear focus. The brushstrokes too eerily perfect for the scene to be static.
I revisited Kurow, Omarama and Aoraki, Mount Cook first in summer and again in winter. I took notes about a lot of things, the colour of the rosehips and the way the light went through them, and the fact that Kurow was cut in half by shadow. I adapted some elements based on imagination. In Beneath Pale Water, for example, the stones are white, but in reality the stones at Lake Aviemore are grey. Some of the colours had changed in my memory. In the context of the story the character Delia is impressionable, the colour white represents her innocence and emptiness. The characters in Beneath Pale Water criss-cross the land in the same way the shadows of hawks and gliders do. Marking the lines we travel, unable to settle or stay put.
The trip to the airfield in the winter was a little more fraught, black ice on the roads. When dad and I would go gliding then we’d practice circuits. The landscape from the canopy of the glider in winter is bleached, the colours and crevices dusted in white. In inland Otago seasonal variations are very marked – the landscape constantly changing. Beneath Pale Water spans a year, excluding flashbacks, divided into summer, autumn, winter and spring. The landscape is personified, with each season shaping the narrative, serving an important role. The weather too, by way of pathetic fallacy*, influences and mirrors the moods of the characters – leading in winter to sinister tensions.
There are a few things that I’m starting to contemplate now that the novel is almost ready. Has the process of writing a narrative so close to my memories of looking down at the landscapes of inland Otago from the canopy of a glider been cathartic? A little. Or celebratory? More so. To follow the paths of hawks along ridges, dipping in and out of an invisible wave. Or watching them from the ground and admiring their wildness, freedom and skill. The scenes of Otago from above gave me colourful memories – like a series of paintings - those that I can come back to at any time, and from any place that I happen to be living.
*The ascription of human feelings to the outside world.