Lee Murray's Speculative Fiction Show - Lucy Sussex - Hiraeth
Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.
Today my guest is award-winning Kiwi-Australian author Lucy Sussex, who writes speculative fiction, non-fiction, and true crime, as well as being a formidable editor, reviewer, academic and teacher. Lucy talks to us about the notion of hiraeth in fiction and, in particular, how this concept relates to the work of New Zealand genre writer Fergus Hume.
Is a Welsh word meaning longing for a lost place. I have been told the house and garden of my childhood, in Christchurch New Zealand, got razed by a developer/destroyer some time back. But it remains with me.
My other hireath is Erewhon station, where we holidayed. It still exists, and has a speculative fiction connection, being once owned by British utopianist Samuel Butler. Mind you, when I set a utopia in the Mackenzie country, it proved a future with polyandry, for ecological reasons.
The imagination plays such tricks; and if we can situate weirdness in green and beloved settings, so much the better. Consider Weta Studios—worldwide filmgoers are now familiar with the Aotearoan landscape from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Even if those with familiarity can mutter: why do they go down the Waikato and end up in Canterbury?)
However, as my research in 1800s writing shows, if Antipodean writers used their hiraeth for settings, it tended not to be for export, or for long. The cultural cringe meant that writing about Grong Grong or Te Aroha was ‘provincial’. The overseas market required an author to blend in. As the artist Lionel Lindsay was told (and I paraphrase): 'The British public is not much interested in anything but itself.'
Is today’s situation better? Antipodean audiences are small, and survival means interesting the overseas market. Ngaio Marsh did so, although losing much of her NZ content. Arthur Upfield didn't--but then he was an expatriate Brit long resident in Australia.
What fuels the fiction and makes it distinctive can work against it in the global market. There are of course exceptions, which keep us hopeful, if nothing else.
One NZ writer who conquered the world was Fergus Hume, author of the best-selling crime novel of the 1800s, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. I wrote Blockbuster about its success, and Hume’s life--he turned out to be gay. Blockbuster mixed biography and book history. It won a history award in Australia and got shortlisted for a Ngaio.
Growing up in Christchurch, I never heard of Hume. He wasn't a source of national pride, as he abandoned NZ settings early. The Hansom Cab was set in Melbourne, where Hume moved to seek his fortune. The book remains still a formidable evocation of place, something crucial to the crime genre.
That the Hansom Cab broke the rules and sales records was due to a genius publisher/publicist called Fred Trischler. If Hume was from Dunedin, where his father ran the lunatic asylum, then Fred was associated with Christchurch. It was his nous, backed by dubious money, which took the Hansom Cab to London, and made it an international sensation.
Fred Trischler's operation is a perfect object lesson on how to make a small press go gangbusters. Even now it makes publishers grin.
There were other sides to Hume. His 140 books include horror, speculative fiction, and fantasy. My favourite is ''A Colonial Banshee", a short story which is perhaps his only work to be set wholly in the South Island. It also has the same idea as Gaiman's American Gods, over a century later. Here, I suspect, is Hume's personal hiraeth. The narrator climbs to the top of Ben Lomond:
“There I was accustomed to sit for hours among the ice and snow watching the Earnslaw glacier flashing like a mirror in the sunlight, and the snowy range of the Southern Alps standing like fairy lace-work against the clear blue sky”.
Hume said he “belonged” to New Zealand, but he left and never returned.
Thanks for this wonderful insight on hiraeth and Hume, Lucy. For more information, check out these links.
To learn more about Lucy and her writing, check out her website here.