My town no more
Novelist and former hairdresser Pip Adam revisits old 1980s Auckland haunts (including Saturday night speedway and Asti Spumante in Albert Park) and then tries to escape them in her latest book, a saga of fast fashion, obnoxious private schoolboys and reckless stupidity.
The action in the book takes place over 24 hours, starting on Karangahape Road, with the label deciding to shoot their new season the next morning. It’s a move that makes them look confident. It’s an act of reckless stupidity. The samples haven’t arrived, they have no make-up artist, and Carla – their hairdresser – is tasked with tracking down two untrackable models in a single afternoon, aided only by her friend and ex-colleague, Duey.
It’s a fraught situation, but more than simply being a critical look at the fashion industry, The New Animals dissects power and cruelty in a landscape where unhappiness catches like a slow-brewing cold. But there’s tenderness, too, in unexpected moments, with unexpected people, in a city that’s changing so quickly it could swallow you.
ROSABEL TAN: The action in The New Animals takes place on a very specific but nondescript day in Auckland: Phil Goff is campaigning to be mayor, the rail link is going over budget, and Bowerbank Ninow on K’ Road has an Oscar Perry oil painting in the window. Why this day?
PIP ADAM The book takes place on Wednesday, 16 September in 2016. On that day, I walked the novel – I went everywhere that the characters do, at the same time they do in the book. I began as Carla, catching the train from Glen Innes (GI) then walking up Queen Street to K’ Road and to the building I imagined the workroom onto, then I walked down to the salon I imagined Duey working in, and saw what was going on in there. I caught the same buses, the same ferry, and walked the same streets. The things I saw and heard and drank and ate on that day are in the novel.
I think I chose this day because it felt like a ‘pending’ moment. I really wanted it to be before the American elections and I liked the idea that it preceded the Auckland mayoral race but was caught up in the campaigning. I also like that time of year. Spring hadn’t quite sprung but there was anticipation in the air. For me, the book is a lot about ‘fluidity’ and I like the way this day (it was also the middle of the week) had that feeling of floating around, not quite being fixed, threatening change but not quite yet. This particular Wednesday turned out to be so good for that.
At what point in the writing process were you when you walked the novel? Did your experience of the city change the narrative?
I had what I considered to be maybe a third draft of the book. I had this ‘chicken and egg’ struggle throughout – do I write first? Do I walk first? I had to compromise, because I couldn’t do both. I wrote a lot and then I would visit. I visited Auckland heaps while I was writing the book and those visits were always changing the book.
The walk-through day changed the book a lot. There were pragmatic changes – the weather was different, things opened later than I remembered, but then there were these kind of emotional and tonal corrections that happened walking around Auckland on that day. I grew up in Auckland, I lived there until I was 23, I miss it terribly, so I have this ‘Auckland’ of my own in my mind, and that’s what I really wanted to test on that day. I wanted to get out of my Auckland and into that Auckland. Of course, that’s impossible to do perfectly but I reckon the exercise or the attempt helped me.
What was your Auckland?
I guess my Auckland is the 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s bussing into Queen Street from the eastern suburbs on Friday nights after school to go to DKDs so we could buy single cigarettes and maybe all put our money together for a bottle of Asti Spumante to drink in Albert Park. But it’s also getting up early to go and play tennis, and my dad driving us home from the Speedway on Saturday nights. It’s about living in Ponsonby when it was still cheap, and – when that got too expensive – Grey Lynn, and going to gigs at the Gluepot and working as a hairdresser in Manukau Mall. My Auckland feels a lot about youth and independence but it’s also about being a white girl in the Samoan culture group and riding our bikes near Bastion Point. Walking up Queen Street marching for the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Trying to regain the night.
Your portrayal of Auckland in The New Animals feels really rare, because it captures Auckland now: in the middle of its awkward growth spurt. You portray it as a city with a history, a personality (impatient, proud, contradictory) and a sense of inner turmoil.
I felt really nervous writing about Auckland, living in Wellington. I love Auckland so much. I would love to live there again but I just can’t see a way that could happen, and that really disturbs some strong emotions. I never thought Auckland wouldn’t be an option for me. I was three when I moved there and 23 when I moved away – I never thought I wouldn’t live there again, so writing about Auckland is a lot about wish fulfillment. It’s sort of a love song.
I went and saw Dominic Hoey talk about his new book Iceland the other day and I thought, ‘What were you thinking, Pip?’ because his book is so great and so Auckland, from inside, with that day-to-day intimacy. I’m really aware that my take on Auckland is me, sitting in Wellington, dreaming of Auckland, visiting occasionally and either staying with my folks in GI or in a hotel right in town. It’s about me imagining how it might be to still be hairdressing, and not to have made that decision to move away.
The book’s not only about Auckland – it’s about the fashion industry, and about power: how people desire it, and the lengths they’ll go to keep it.
The book to me is a lot about the service industry. And especially the way the service industry is often at the service of rich people. I thought a lot about this moment in my life where I was desperate – not able to pay bills, no money to eat sometimes – and I would wake up and go to work in this really flash salon and do the hair of really rich people.
It’s hard to explain, but it was this weird thing where you have nothing, but you put on good make-up and flash clothes to do your job, because the people you are serving would find it uncomfortable if they knew you’d come to work with no food, or that your power was about to get cut off. I feel like the service industry is the new manufacturing industry. So yeah, it’s so much about that power stuff.
I think the ideas in this book about the fashion industry started when I was researching the engineering industry. I’m obsessed with that place where art intersects function. And fashion is so slippery in that regard. I started asking, ‘well if clothes have a function, what is that function?’ and I thought one important function of fashion is to show other people that the wearer is fashionable – which means clothes stop fulfilling this function as soon as fashion changes: quickly.
Clothes aren’t like a toothbrush that’s no longer functional because it’s all bent over and old and doesn’t clean your teeth any more. Clothes are often thrown out long before they’re ‘broken’. That got me thinking about power again and then it got me thinking again about how in New Zealand we have the service industry, but there are countries all over the world who are manufacturing, and it’s impossible to put on a $50 pair of jeans and not think about the person who made them and the conditions they’re working in. And that got me thinking about what it used to be like to be a hairdresser and how you had to be fashionable and you had no money and what a freaking godsend the fast fashion places were – which got me thinking about how capitalism is destroying the planet [laughs].
The hopelessness of that cycle becomes really profound in your book, and in the final section the novel takes an incredibly unexpected turn. Was this always where you envisaged the book going?
I started the book with one image and it was always what I was writing toward. The odd thing I just realised is that the image never made it to the book.
What happened to it?
My ego wants to give you an answer like ‘the book rejected it’ or something equally writerly but if I’m honest – I think, subconsciously, I wanted to keep something for myself. It doesn’t immediately read like it but this is a really personal book and it’s all sort of ‘out there’ now – but I still have that final image, that tiny piece of information which still belongs to me.