Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: Carl Shuker in conversation with Simon Wilson

Carl Shuker is the author of A Mistake, which I read and reviewed just before coming over here for the festival.  But he has also written a number of other books, some of which sound very interesting indeed.

His first published book was called The Method Actors (2005)… which

in 2006 won the Prize in Modern Letters, then the world’s richest prize for an emerging author. ‘Brash and fearless,’ wrote the New York Times, ‘The Method Actors is a self-consciously postmodern challenge to our perceived reality and its fictional depiction’. The AV Club described it as a ‘mesmerizing opus…a serious accomplishment’. (Academy of NZ Literature website)

but it was not actually his first novel.  That was the semi-autobiographical novel The Lazy Boys which was published in 2006 after The Method Actors.  The chair, Simon Wilson, made a point of noting that the first novel announced Shuker as a writer of big ideas and he went on to ask if the NYT comment was code for ‘difficult and hard to read’.  I thought this was rather a churlish question: it’s high praise for any antipodean author to be noticed by the NYT, never mind acknowledging the work as an important book.  Interpreting their comment as oblique criticism seemed a bit of a put-down to me, but of course Shuker had no alternative but to go with the flow, and say that his writing had changed since becoming a parent and that he was now not trying to write about big ideas so much. A Mistake is a complex book, but it’s not difficult to read.

It was a rather strange conversation, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting it.  Talking about his character Elizabeth Taylor in A Mistake, Shuker said that he wanted to do big things when he was young, and that’s not a nice quality to have.  (I am not sure why he now feels ambition is something to feel ambivalent about, perhaps he was equating ambition with arrogance, or he was picking up on some undercurrent in the conversation that wasn’t obvious to the audience.) But he made the point, (and I agree) that the world does need people like that, even if they are not particularly likeable.

Wilson said that what was common in all the novels were a character in distress who is not equal to the task, and he asked (ad nauseam) if Elizabeth Taylor the character was a dangerous person.  He referred to her behaviour towards a dog she gets lumbered with, and the way she drives in a risky erratic way when she is angry, as example of how this surgeon loses her cool in situations outside the operating theatre, but not within it.  He talked about how she was dangerous because she ‘harms’ people—her lover, her colleague, her boss.

So Shuker had to explain what (I think) should have been obvious to anyone who’d read the book, that he was trying to show that surgeons—ordinary human beings like the rest of us—are invested with enormous prestige and the power of life and death and that the responsibility we invest in them sometimes goes awry.  His character isn’t dangerous, she is human, just like the rest of us, and expecting her to be 24/7 supercool when the family, the media, the hospital admin and some of her colleagues are looking for a scalp is too big an ask for any human.  (And not only that, would the reader’s expectations have been the same if she were a man?) The parallel narrative about the fatal Challenger disaster is explicit about how a small error in a chain of events can have catastrophic consequences, and that there are complexities of attribution to consider whereas we are more likely to look for an easy person to blame.

Reviews of disasters and tragedies are aimed (or should be) at preventing recurrence, so they explore the systemic flaws that lead, say, to an accidental overdose in a hospital, not at why an individual nurse accidentally administered it.  Blaming a high-profile target like a surgeon is detrimental to the system overall if the system loses an otherwise good doctor and the years of training and experience that person had.

It is Elizabeth Taylor’s obsessiveness that makes her so very good at her job, and Shuker’s message is that we ought not to waste half our lives papering over our flaws to make ourselves more palatable to others.  In fact, he says, in fiction, it’s the characters with flaws that are interesting, even if they’re not likeable, and that’s like real life.  We don’t often meet perfectly likeable people in real life.

Ain’t that the truth!

PS In the evening we went to hear Anthony Beevor, author of all those military histories, including two that I’ve read, Stalingrad and (most of) The Battle for Spain.  His story of how he gained access to Soviet archives was fascinating – it was really a stroke of good luck and very good timing, and it turned out that the Soviets were very pleased with the book.  But not so pleased with his book about Berlin because they don’t like the reputation of the Red Army to be besmirched by accounts about the German women they raped…


  1. Wow sounds like a blown author interview! I thought the book was great.


    • Hi Alyson, yes, I did too. I was surprised by how the interviewer latched on to the #NoSPoilers issue with the dog. I love dogs, and I found it distressing, but I interpreted that as a classic example of how women are always expected to be the carers, and here’s one with a really important job, expected to take on a role for which she is manifestly unsuited, and she just can’t get out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Travels with Tim and Lisa.


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