Interview with Pip Adam

Pip Adam (photo by Victoria Birkinshaw)

The New Animals is partly about the fashion industry. Is something you’ve wanted to write about for a while now?

Yeah, I think so. I worked as a hairdresser for about 15 years and loved it. I first became aware of ‘fashion’ as a living thing in 1992. I’d been hairdressing about seven years and someone brought in a copy of the Vogue which included Marc Jacobs’ grunge collection.

It was astonishing and exciting for lots of reasons. I remember a group of us slavering over it out the back of the salon – like vultures on a corpse. It felt like a life changer. Several of us were running two wardrobes at the time, one for work in the salon (which was pretty commercial) and one for the weekends which was all flanel shirts and Doc Martins. There was a real sense in those photos in Vogue that fashion could be cataclysmic. Our lives kind of changed over night – the next day I remember wearing a massive fisherman ribbed jumper and see-through skirt over big black boots to work. I got this sense then that fashion often starts outside the fashion industry – that it answers some kind of societal question as well as a commercial one. It was really exciting. I’m also interested in how fashion is kind of like art but is so effemeral and also functional. I love design for that reason.

Also, I guess, I’m really worried about the environmental impact of the fashion industry and that dark side of it really intrigues me too. The way the industry is run by this idea of ‘the new’. Like clothes become obsolete not because they stop working but because they’re out of date. I don’t know how this fits with my excitement around fashion. Maybe that is part of what draws me to it as a subject, the fact thatI can’t comfortably reconcile my love of the clothes and fashion and the destruction I know it’s causing. So yeah, this is something I've wanted to write about for a long time, maybe to try and find some sense in my own contradiction and hypocrisy.

The story in The New Animals takes place over the period of 24 hours on a day in September 2016 in Auckland – how did this time constraint play into the story and construction of the novel?

Um. Yeah. So, I think it was always going to be a day, and the only thing I think can be tricky with writing a story that takes place in one day is that it runs the risk of slipping into an episodic ryhthm. I guess the real constraint I placed on myself was that it took place on one particular day. I went to Auckland on this day and ‘walked the novel’. So I had a timeline of the book and I followed that. One of the biggest problems in this was that a restaurant I really wanted two of the characters to eat at, was shut on the day of the novel. I had a real conflict about whether to include the scene anyway (I had written a scene I really liked that took place in the restaurant). I decided I wouldn’t. I had set this task and I wanted to see what happened if I stuck inside the constraints of it. What happened, as is often the case with constraint, is that I was forced to solve a problem (possibly the most creative of acts) and something interesting happened.

The novel is concerned with many things – the consumerist and throwaway nature of fashion, the perversity of what is ‘fashionable’ and how we decide that, and – this is what I think of as a recurring theme throughout your writing – the need for humans to be involved in meaningful work. Can you talk about this, whether you see it as one of your themes?

I am really interested in work. I think it stems from working from a young age. I left school when I was about fifteen and work has kind of been my life since. Even when I finally got to university at 21 I still worked. My undergraduate degree took another ten years, and I always worked. My first jobs were at factories and bakeries and hairdressing, so I saw the direct result of my work – things got packed, bread got baked, hair got cut. After university I started getting jobs where the results weren’t quite so directly observable. Which was a weird experience. I often felt, in some of these jobs, that work was just this weird game where I was doing tasks that didn’t produce anything and that the purpose of the game was to keep me entertained until I died. So yeah, I am really interested in this idea of work.
This idea of ‘meaningful’ work, or finding meaning through work, is another interesting thing to me. I feel really strongly about the way capitalism values some work over others. Like the way we think people shouldn’t be paid to look after their children or their parents or their relatives. I find ‘work’ a really problematic thing. One thing I really struggle with is that, actually, to have ‘meaningful’ work, what does that mean? So many people are working in such awful conditions for so little money, there are millions of indentured workers and slaves around the world, and then there are some of us with this weird opportunity to think, ‘Do I enjoy my job?’ I have so many conflicted thoughts about it and I think a lot of my writing, like from the start, has been about trying to figure out these things about the world. So yeah, it’s a theme in me so it’s almost certainly a theme in this book.
The New Animals has one of the strangest endings I’ve encountered in a long time, and yet, it feels so right. Without giving anything away, can you explain a little about this mixture of reality and can we call it ‘fantasy’ aspect of your writing?It feels like something new for you, but also entirely in keeping with the sort of formal experimentation you’ve played with in your short stories and your first novel.
I think the last section of the book has a lot to do with two books. Janet Frame’s Intensive Care which Maria McMillan recommended to me and The Martian by Andy Weir. Frame’s book is in two halves, the first is a social-realist story and the second is science fiction. I was really interested in how the two halves talked to each other. About how what couldn’t be said in the realist part could be said in the book’s science fiction section. The Martian is a wonderful read about, as probably everyone knows from the movie, a human left for dead on Mars. The thing I love about The Martian is that it’s very ‘hard’ science fiction. Survival is on reality’s terms. No one gets ‘beamed up’.
I’ve read and been in awe of science fiction from a moment in Dunedin in about 1999 when I met my friend Jenn Martin in a Victorian English paper and in our first conversation she told me about Ursula LeGuinn’s The Dispossessed. If I had my way, I’d be writing science fiction – huge, fat, trilogies about intergalactic travel.
So to me, that last part of the novel is a science fiction exercise, not a fantastic one. I read heaps about human bodies and how they work and don’t work in certain environments. The science probably doesn’t stand up as strongly as I’d like it to but I hope there is something in there.
In my mind the ending is trying to do what Frame did. I got to a point where social realism failed me. I was unable to say what I needed to say in the contemporary terrestrial setting so I had to take it somewhere else. The place I took it, like Mars, needed to be the rule-maker, needed to change bodies and minds in ways that were useful for the story I was trying to tell.

Pip Adam's third book, The New Animals, is released today. You can buy it at the best bookshops, or through our online bookstore here.

There will be a launch for The New Animals and for Tim Corballis's time travel novel, Our Future is in the Air, on Tuesday 18 July at Unity Books, Wellington, 6pm on. To receive invites to our launches and information about our books, sign up to our enewsletter on our homepage here.