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Q&A with Madison Hamill

Madison Hamill's first book, a collection of essays called Specimen, was recently launched at Unity Books. Here she answers a few questions about the book.

In your author’s note you say ‘sometimes telling the truth requires lying’... I wondered how you draw on fiction’s techniques to write your essays? How does fiction or ‘lying’ help us with ‘truth’?

All memory is a bit made up. I have a degree in psychology so I can say things like that. So in a way there’s no certainty about what’s true. I can only be honest about what I remember or believe I remember. But I also use elements of fiction, in a way that’s quite obvious when you come across it.

I never know for sure that what I’m writing is going to be an essay. I only start out with something I want to say or something elusive I want to pin down. I think the most important ‘truth’ is that thing that drives the essay to begin with—what an essay is searching for (to ‘essay’ means to attempt or try). Maybe it’s the end-point of the essay or it is something bigger than the individual parts of the essay, something more abstract or complicated, or it’s a particular feeling or experience that you’re trying to put down on the page, and sometimes you have to search for that with different methods. It’s not that I make stuff up and disguise it as non-fiction. It has to be clear afterwards what’s ‘non-fiction’ and what’s imaginative. For instance, in one story, I write about a girl who has weapons stuck in her body. It’s inspired by this image called 'the wound man' that was used by trainee doctors in medieval times to indicate the kinds of wounds that might need to be treated. In my story it’s a metaphor for invisible/mental illnesses. It’s essentially fiction, but in a way, it’s all true, and I don’t know if I could have said it as well in a way that was more literal. Some might say, that’s not really an essay, and they’re probably right but then, why did they let me put it in an essay collection?

In your essays you are very frank about your life, from your first period to your first grotty student flat in Dunedin, from your social anxiety to the period in your life where you shoplifted, your sexuality. I wondered why you wanted to put all this down on paper for people to read, things that many people want to hide from public knowledge?

It’s not that I particularly enjoy airing my embarrassing secrets to the public, but I do happen to find it useful, since I’m not very good at talking, so writing about things helps me communicate them. I think there are a lot of little things that, in my corner of the world at least, we’ve collectively decided can’t be talked about if they don’t fit this specific narrative of how things are supposed to be. Anything outside the narrative is a little taboo, which means that we end up not talking about it and thinking that because nobody else talks about it, it must be just us that experience things that way. But in reality, we’re all going around hiding the same stupid stuff from one another.

I was surprised by the number of people who read my essays and said, ‘this is so relatable’, ‘I felt the same way’ or ‘this happened to me too’. I’d thought I was a bit odd and unrelatable, but it turns out I’m fairly ordinary. Writing things down and then sharing them with people goes some way towards destroying this weird cycle of oppressive normativity. I figured if it helped me to write it, it might help someone else who relates to my experiences too.

Your parents, friends, classmates, flatmates, and teachers appear in your essays. How do you approach it when you set out to write about other people? For example, do you check with people first, or talk to them after the writing is done?

I wouldn’t normally ask someone about an essay before I’d written it, because often when I start writing, I don’t know what’s going to end up in the essay, and I need to feel free, creatively, to write what I need to write without worrying about others. Then later I have to go back and consider how the essay might this affect people who appear in it. For Specimen, I had to decide whether I was going to ask their permission, which I did generally if I still had a relationship with them, and in those cases I sent them the relevant sections to read. That was met with positive responses, which was very encouraging. In a few cases I wasn’t in contact with them, and I just made a decision about whether or not I felt ethically obligated to anonymise them.

Sometimes people in the book had names that suited their characters so well that it was really difficult to think of a pseudonym that worked equally well, and that made things difficult. In the end, some but not all of the names were changed. I think the most important aspect of writing about real people is making sure to portray them empathetically, and to show more than one side of them. That’s the rule when writing fiction too I guess, but when it’s non-fiction, it just has more real-world consequences.

Many readers and young writers seem excited about works that recount personal experience. Do you have thoughts on why readers and writers are drawn to this at the moment?

I only have unsubstantiated theories. I think reading a book that’s about someone’s real life can feel more productive somehow than reading fiction. We have so many other media for consuming stories. For me, when I buy a book, I need some excuses up my sleeve to convince myself it’s worth the money. If it’s about current day real life, or about someone who I relate to or who has done something I’m interested in, that can be another excuse.

It can also be a way to read about diverse experiences that are hard to find in fiction.

Maybe it’s also related to how we engage with social media. We follow people online for their personalities. I think lots of people crave that direct connection to someone, so this could be sort of an extension of that impulse.

Personally, I like reading about personal experiences in part because I’m just fascinated in how writers turn real life into narrative. How do you make up for missing memories, for example? For writers, non-fiction has all these interesting challenges attached to it.