It’s a pleasure to introduce my first international guest in the Talking (new) fiction series. Sue Orr’s second novel, Loop Tracks, has been a bestseller in her home country, New Zealand, since its release last year, and has just been released in Australia, to acclaim, by Terri-ann White’s Upswell Publishing.
Loop Tracks was recently longlisted for New Zealand’s premier literary honours, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Sue Orr is also the award-winning author of two books of short stories, Etiquette for a Dinner Party and From Under the Overcoat, and the novel The Party Line. She teaches creative writing at Victoria University in Wellington, and has for some years been involved with programs teaching creative writing in prisons and women’s refuges in Auckland and Wellington.
Sue took time out from Adelaide Writers’ Week to answer a few questions…
It’s 1978: the Auckland abortion clinic has been forced to close and sixteen-year-old Charlie has to fly to Sydney, but the plane is delayed on the tarmac. It’s 2019: Charlie’s tightly contained Wellington life with her grandson Tommy is interrupted by the unexpected intrusions of Tommy’s first girlfriend, Jenna, and the father he has never known, Jim. The year turns, and everything changes again.
Loop Tracks is a major New Zealand novel, written in real time against the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic and the New Zealand General Election and euthanasia referendum.
Voices from sisters past
AC: Sue, you’ve spoken about Loop Tracks having been inspired by a conversation some years ago—a moment you’ve described as ‘a tingle, like shorting electrics desperate to earth’ when a friend spoke about ‘a plane delayed on the tarmac at Auckland Airport for hours, with anxious pregnant girls and women on board’. The plane’s destination was Sydney, where the women and girls could go to have a safe, legal abortion, something they could not do in New Zealand at that time (1978).
The first question I want to ask about this concerns the issue of teenage pregnancies in the late 1970s. As you show in Loop Tracks, the choices available to young pregnant girls were limited—abortion or adoption—both involving a great degree of secrecy and hypocrisy. And those so-called ‘choices’ were often made by others. What floored me was the cruelty meted out to so many young girls in the name of ‘respectability’. Were you able to access formal, as well as anecdotal, research into the long-term effects of these practices in developing your story?
SO: Yes. As an ex-journalist, it was really important to me that the backdrop to the fictional narrative of Loop Tracks was factually correct. I obsessed over the accuracy, to be honest, and now on reflection I think it was also because I didn’t want to give anti-choice lobbyists any grounds to challenge me on sloppy research, diverting the conversation away from the issues at the heart of the book.
Dame Margaret Sparrow, with others, set up Sisters Overseas Service, the clandestine network that enabled women from the far reaches of New Zealand to travel to Australia for abortions during 1978. Margaret went on to establish Family Planning in New Zealand.
She has written three texts on the history of abortion law in New Zealand. One of them, Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980, was my key formal resource for the researching of Loop Tracks. It contains many reflective accounts of the long-term effects of the practices you mention.
Margaret launched the New Zealand edition of Loop Tracks. The novel is dedicated to her, and to my friend who was on the delayed flight at the beginning of the story. Loop Tracks could not have been written without the generosity of these two women.
Someone else’s story
AC: I’m also wondering about the process of developing a narrative from that initiating conversation into the rich terrain covered by the novel. Was it difficult to transform the experience of a friend into fiction? Were you conscious, for example, of the need to de-identify your friend? I imagine this might affect all manner of creative choices—characters, settings, motivations…
SO: Unlike Charlie, my friend who was on the flight stayed on the flight. So it was never a question of transforming her specific experience into fiction. But she was able to gift to me the essential details of what it was like to be a very young woman pregnant in 1978, not wanting to have the baby. What it was like to have to find a doctor (and they were rare) who would help her navigate the system that had been established by the Sisters Overseas Service. What it was like to raise the small fortune needed for the flight and procedure. What it was like to turn up at the airport and be shepherded on to a commercial flight with others in her situation. The condescending air hostesses. The dash to Sydney, or Melbourne, and the return home two days later to take up her old life, pretending none of it had ever happened. And, of course, the delay that occurred on her particular flight. That delay was the genesis of this book.
I have always protected the identity of this friend. It was the promise I made to her, when she agreed to talk about all of those things I just mentioned. I’ve written an essay about this here.
‘The girl that was me’
AC: I love the way you play with tense and point of view with your protagonist, Charlie. Although the novel is essentially a first-person narrative, the world through Charlie’s eyes, you also give us third-person sequences that tell the story of ‘the girl that was me’, and which slide between past and present. What advantages did this narrative sleight of hand give you in conveying Charlie’s story?
SO: It felt as though I had no choice but to offer Charlie the sleight of hand as a way to confront her traumatic past. Charlie has never dealt with the shocking circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or the birth of her child. Rather, she has developed mechanisms for shutting down that period of her life; shutting down any conversation that looks as though it might be drifting towards these traumas. As a result, she’s disassociated herself from ‘the girl she was’.
The disassociation starts to crumble when two things happen—her grandson Tommy gets an inquisitive girlfriend, and the pair of them summon Tommy’s father into all their lives. Charlie’s forced to confront those events, all those years ago. She is so far emotionally and mentally estranged from them, the only way she can cope with revisiting them is via a third-person perspective. The distance she creates between her adult self and the girl she was enables her to face the past, fearfully crack it open, and eventually create the possibility of moving on from it.
Joys and challenges
AC: Charlie’s grandson, Tommy, is a wonderfully drawn character, and I found my response to him vacillating between protectiveness and exasperation, affection and outright horror. Can you please tell us a little about Tommy and how you developed this character?
SO: Tommy came into Charlie’s life at the age of four—dropped off at the gate when his father became unable (or unwilling) to cope with him. Tommy needed Charlie, and Charlie needed him. She needed someone to care for, a purpose in her life.
As I grew this character—as he grew into a teenager—I realised that his relationship with his grandmother had to become more mutually reliant rather than less, as would normally happen. I also needed a character who would interpret the world in a very literal way; someone who would be vulnerable to the conspiracy theories in 2020 New Zealand.
I have friends with sons on the spectrum—I have watched these boys grow up, watched how they interpret the world around them, watched how their loving families have accommodated their views and celebrated their difference. One such friend read an early version of the manuscript, and pointed out that I had painted too rosy a picture of life with a child on the spectrum. Where’s the anger? she asked me. Where are the unreasonable, vicious, hurtful outbursts towards the people that love them and care for them the most? The next draft was more honest. It captured the challenges, as well as the joys, of raising a child on a spectrum.
‘Another crack at reckless joy’
AC: Loop Tracks could be thought of as a multiple coming of age story. Tommy’s passage from adolescence into new adulthood is one thread; Charlie’s earlier, very different experience of that journey is another. Is the older Charlie also undergoing another kind of ‘coming of age’ in the narrative present of the novel?
SO: She absolutely is.
As Tommy gains independence, Charlie recognises that she’s becoming irrelevant to him. (There’s no feigning denial of this on Tommy’s part—he says it like it is!) So where does this leave Charlie? Who is she, if she’s not Tommy’s provider and protector?
Her second coming of age—her opportunity to reset her life, bump the looping patterns off track—occurs against the backdrop of the extreme lockdown conditions of the first wave of Covid-19 to hit New Zealand in March 2020. For Charlie, already cast adrift from the responsibilities of the last 20 years, this weird new world presents opportunity for another crack at reckless joy, this time tempered with wisdom.
AC: Loop Tracks is a novel that foregrounds the political. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the rights of individuals are woven into the story in ways that make it clear that rationalisations and doctrines don’t hold: the political is personal, it affects lives, it has consequences. Is this an abiding concern in your work or did the original inspiration, the experience of your friend, dictate this direction for the novel?
SO: Characters always come first for me. I started with a girl on a delayed flight: she’s pregnant, naïve, and makes a crazy decision that makes sense to her in that moment. That’s all I had to work with. I knew the circumstances of her pregnancy, and little else.
But if you’re willing to inhabit the hearts of your characters—be your characters—then the story unfolds in its own surging, organic way. This feels like the only way to write, to me. This is the source of the joy of writing. The excitement of discovering what happens next, at the same time as your characters. Jumping on their shoulders and experiencing their lives with them.
The issues—the themes, whatever you want to call them—they emerge in a natural way, as a result of the character’s development and decisions. I’m there for the ride, documenting the fallout, the consequences, the joys and despair of human fallibility and resilience.
AC: The stunning cover for your Australian edition features an image by Greg Simpson that brings to mind Charlie’s, and then Tommy’s, love of the 1960s design toy, Spirograph. Could you please talk about the way this works as metaphor in Loop Tracks?
SO: I always imagined the cover being a Spirograph image (it was my favourite childhood toy) with a big smudge across the page as the pen was bumped off course. The final cover was so much better—less literal, less obvious, while still clearly referencing a Spirograph design. The geometric loops have gone haywire, just as the rigid routines in Charlie’s life get knocked off course in the novel. The image also alludes to Tommy’s discovery of loop track music and his natural gift for mathematics, and the beautiful loop track bush walks in Wellington city.
The C word
AC: Yours is one of the first wave of novels to draw Covid into the story—and the pandemic atmosphere brings so much to what is happening. What influence, if any, did Covid have on the way the novel ends?
SO: The novel ends in spring 2020—after the General Election which saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government return to power. By early October, Covid had been eliminated in New Zealand for the time being. The return to a normal way of life gave agency to all the characters—they were free, finally, to make decisions about how they would live their lives, for better or for worse.