Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.Ruby Porter is a tutor of creative writing at the University of Auckland. She has been published in Geometry Journal, Aotearotica, Spinoff and Wireless, and a selection of her poetry is available on NZEPC. In 2018, she also won the Wallace Foundation Short Fiction Contest.
Attraction – Synopsis
The present reckons with the past in Attraction, Ruby Porter’s atmospheric debut novel.
Three women are on a road trip, navigating the motorways of the North Island, their relationships with one another and New Zealand’s colonial history. Our narrator doesn’t know where she stands with Ilana, her not-quite girlfriend. She has a complex history with her best friend, Ashi. She’s haunted by the memory of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. And her period’s now weeks late.Attraction is a meditative novel of connection, inheritance and the stories we tell ourselves. In lyrical fragments, Porter explores what it means to be and to belong, to create and to destroy.
You are based in Auckland, and ‘Attraction’ explores three women and their road trip across New Zealand. Can you discuss the process of choosing New Zealand for the backdrop and setting for your story?
I was born in London but have lived in Aotearoa since I was six months old. At the time of writing Attraction, I’d only travelled overseas once – back to England for three weeks at the age of twelve. Auckland and New Zealand were all I knew. When I was younger, this upset me. I felt like all the best stories happened elsewhere, in big cities. I remember trying to stage a story on a double-decker bus in London, and failing, miserably. But by university, I appreciated what an interesting country I lived in, how rich Aotearoa is in character and setting and history. There’s so much of New Zealand life that’s yet to be written about.
‘Attraction’ is an apt name for this novel, as it seems to explore physical attraction and sexual relationships, situations that could be but are not quite love. Could you tell us about the novel and its exploration of attraction and relationships?
I was fascinated by that time at the end of a relationship, where neither person is quite ready to let it go, remembering what it was, and what it could have been – but the resentment is already there and they’re growing apart. I’m interested in disconnections and missed connections between people. Moments where characters aren’t heard correctly, or heard at all; conversations that die; caring words and apologies that go left unsaid. The narrator of Attraction is almost incapable of communicating her feelings, and instead they build up inside of her. She thwarts all her chances at meaningful relationships.
The novel is written in a series of vignettes or fragments, which gives it sense of the ephemeral, of discovering fleeting moments. Was it a conscious decision to write in this form, and what did the fragments allow you in your craft?
I found this book just came in these fragments and I never questioned it. I don’t remember making a conscious decision about it.
The fragments allowed for a particularly close point of view – we’re in the narrator’s head, even as her thoughts wander. She finds it hard to stay present with her friends, and the fragments embody this. They create a narrative which slips so readily into memory, and grant resonances between the past and the current moment.
There is a recurring refrain in the book: “Every time you remember something you’re only remembering the last time you thought about it.” What was it about this line that made it something you would return to in your manuscript, and how does the idea engage with the book’s themes of remembrance and loss?
It was a fact which struck me as I first read it. The memories which mean so much to us, the ones we think about the most, are probably furthest from the truth. They solidify into something, not necessarily something real. But it had another significance for Attraction. It acts as a warning about the narrator. She likes to remember her past, and her role in it, in a certain way – but she’s unreliable. It’s a hint to the audience not to trust everything she says.
It also relates, I think, to colonisation. Colonisation is always, in part, a memory project. In Aotearoa, colonisation tried to forcibly remove the stories, and therefore the memories, that Māori had on and of this land; and it tried to instead insert Pākehā into this landscape. Think of, for example, all the Pākehā memorials, the statues of Captain Cook in Gisborne which my characters visit. So that line is also a reminder that the history we’ve been taught is not always the truth. Certain parts and perspectives have been lost.
There is a focus on femininity in the novel, through friendship, female characters, and lesbian relationships. The book has a high proportion of major female characters, and is dedicated to your ‘three mums’. Can you talk about how you engage with femininity, queerness, and female relationships?
I was very aware, from the outset, that I was writing a novel mainly about women and their relationships with each other. Men are often part of the story – Nick, the narrator’s ex; her grandfather Wayne; her uncles Stuart and Lloyd – but I deliberately kept them out of the present of the novel. Pita is the one major male character to make it into a scene set in the present, and that’s only in the final chapter.
I think I was less aware that I was writing about queerness. It wasn’t an aspect of my characters I’d considered, they just were. When I was interviewed during Auckland’s Pride Month I was asked about sexuality in Attraction, and I fumbled a vague answer. I realised, afterwards, that sexuality is never mentioned in the book, except when it comes to Ashi, who’s straight. She was the odd one out.
I grew up around queer people – my mums are queer and most of my friends are, too. I always took it for granted that I was. I never had a ‘coming out’ story. I think my narrator comes from a similar world, with two gay mums, and going to Elam, so her sexuality isn’t something she ever questioned or felt angst over. For her, it’s just the status quo.
You have a fantastic way of picking out the quotidian aspects of daily life, such as social media, grocery shop brands, and the domestic details of life, and then writing them in a way that points out unsettled or unresolved parts of your characters’ psychologies. What significance does the quotidian have for your writing?
I think the quotidian often provides the best concrete details, the ones most evocative of place and character. The woman who helps my characters outside of Waipawa with the eyeliner too far from her eyes, or the TV sets glowing through lace curtains in midday Levin. What details get noticed are always going to be revealing, simultaneously, of the narrator. She notices the eyeliner because she’s female, she notices the TV because she’s knows Levin, she knows to look.
You are also a poet and a creative writing tutor. How do these other forms of writing/work feed into being a novelist? How did you find the transition from poetry to prose?
I started writing prose – my first job at intermediate was writing stories for a radio station. I definitely had a period before writing my novel where I wrote more poetry. It’s easier to find the time for it while completing a degree, and I was invited to perform at a lot of readings, and tried to always have new work. I think that time spent writing poetry had a huge influence on my writing. I love finding unusual ways of saying something, and it’s still very important to me how my work sounds when spoken. I read aloud my entire manuscript at least three times while editing.
Teaching writing is a huge passion of mine. There’s always something to learn from each class, and I get to read some incredible work which I find really inspiring. I always make myself complete the exercises I give my students, and I’ve had some of my strongest lines come that way.
What will be your next project, and what advice do you have for creative writers hoping to pursue their passion?
I’m writing another novel as part of my PhD with Creative Practice at the University of Auckland, but it’s quite a different book. Paula Morris is the whole reason why I’m doing this – she was my supervisor for my Masters of Creative Writing and I wouldn’t be here without her. If you’re considering a masters, I really recommend her course. She has so much spot-on advice to give. But in general, I think it’s important to keep writing and keep reading. Send your work to journals and perform it at readings. Get your name out there.
You can purchase Attraction from Text Publishing.Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.