This is my twentieth year in New Zealand. So, it’s been curious for me to meet someone who is settling here from Scotland, a new New Zealand writer with an exciting publishing record already established. In this installment of the Weekend Name Drop, meet Jess Richards.

Name: Jess Richards

Creative fields: Novelist, Performance Artist

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

Best known for: Author of the novel, Snake Ropes, shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Awards, Green Carnation Prize & the Scottish Book Awards; her second novel, Cooking with Bones, was published in 2013.

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Jess Richards reading from Snake Ropes in Palmerston North

My connection: I met Jess last April when she acted as a panelist in a session on Speculative Fiction, part of the Off the Page series hosted by Massey University in Palmerston North. She read from her novel, Snake Ropes. Following the session, I joined Jess, along with her fellow panelist, Tim Jones, Thom Conroy and Tim Upperton for dinner. I told Jess I had tweeted a picture of her reading and we later located each other on Twitter and Facebook. I was intrigued by her personal journey as Jess had just recently relocated to New Zealand from Scotland. Since then, we have maintained contact online.

Inspiration for this writer: I really wasn’t sure what I would think of the Speculative Fiction session. In the Open Mic portion of the evening, I read from my novel, The Chain, uncertain if it fit the genre or if that even mattered. Listening to Jess discuss the topic with Thom and Tim, I learned that it is a wide open field touching on Dystopian, Literary and Science Fiction. Hearing Jess read from Snake Ropes immediately reminded me of Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, long-listed nominee for the Man Booker Prize and my favourite book of 2015. Her passage (see sample below) was lyrical and linguistically innovative and opened me up my notions of what Speculative Fiction could be. Since then, I have also discovered Jess’ Isolation Blog, an account of her two years living as a self-described “transient”. It’s remarkable reading that I will revisit.

18480149Why you should check him out and share with others: Significant others have noted Jess’ talent, innovation and daring in terms of her linguistic creativity, lyrical prose and dense symbolism. The Guardian, while perhaps warning the average reader about the challenge of reading Snake Ropes, applauded Jess for espousing “a feminist dream that goes back to Wollstonecraft and beyond”; also noting, “Richards handles her ambitions with aplomb. Snake Ropes is partly an extended meditation on trauma and healing, and the trauma is handled so well that the reader is exactly as upset as she needs to be to follow through.” The Independent described Jess’ tales as “inventive and magical”, and acclaiming her “fertile imagination and her direct style, also the clever way she controls her vast network of imagery”. Jess followed up her debut novel’s success with Cooking With Bones, and is currently writing her third novel here in New Zealand.

Sample of work

From Snake Ropes:

13616539The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.

I smile at him, stroke the curls on the back of hims head where them need a wash. I say, ‘Sorry Barney. I’ve got to get you hid, them’re coming.’ Him grips on my neck hard, buries hims face in my hair, and I carry him across the room. Him is so warm and I want to hang onto him, but I put him down by the cupboard door, and hims face trying to look all angered makes me want to laugh, but I dun. 

I hide him in the cupboard behind the boxes. Give him a blanket to keep him warm. Tell him; ‘Shush now, and dun even breathe if them opens the cupboard door.’

The tall men are all skinny and pale, with long dark coats and black hats with big brims on them. Them give us goods for our stuff. Trade them calls it. Da says it be more like theft and if we lived on a main land we’d get a lot more than what them give us. We’ve got to survive on what we can get. No-one here goes to the main land, and no-one wants to. Our boats aren’t strong enough, we dun know the way, them can’t understand us, we’re fine as we are. We have so many reasons; them stretch as wide as the distance to cross to take us there.

            I stand at the window watching. Nine boats long and thin, like the men. Two in each one, rowing with long oars. I sort the piles of broiderie, put the ones them will like best on top. Da’s left the fish out in the cold room, ready for the tall men.

Barney grumbles loud in the cupboard so I call out ‘Now dun fret, you’ll not be shut in the dark for long, it’s just till them’ve gone.’

The tall men dun move to speak to one another. Silent as shadows, everyone says, but when the tall men do speak, them pick the words what’ll get what them most want. Not like us folks what live here, we sometimes chatter out whole bunches of tattle. Perhaps we should lock just a little behind our lips, then we’d get more back.

I’ve got to be watchful with Barney. Three boys on the island were took in the last three months. Three men what go drinking with Da, each of thems sons are gone. Dun think them’ve got blown off the cliffs, we all think it were the tall men what took them.

            Since our Mam died we struggle to get by. Da gets fish from out the sea and I do broideries for selling to the tall men. My broideries are lovely, everyone who sees them says so. I do all the flowers what grow in the summer before the wind sweeps them away, and all the butterflies. Mam left boxes and baskets full of threads and linens. Them said at her funeral that she were the best broiderer this island’s ever seen. She taught me some before she died but I got better quick; Da said we’d be eating grass and drinking air if we were to live off just hims fishing. Him says now I’m sixteen, I’m old enough to trade with the tall men alone.

I did well last month – the batch I’d stitched raised the tall men’s eyebrows and got us more goods from them than the month before. The colours sang in the sunlight on this table, as if my hands had stroked them into the fabric, rather than jabbed them through with the needle. Some pictures are more difficult to bring to life than others, pulling and drawing, pulling and drawing.

Not a sound from the cupboard. For a three year old, Barney is good and quiet for me, when him knows I mean it. I cross the room, whisper at the door;

‘Them’re coming. Keep quiet, good boy.’

‘Dun like it in here, is dark and smelly.’ Him snuffles.

Hims bunny doll lies on the floor next to the cupboard door. I scoop it up, open the door a crack; hims brown eyes are all teary behind the baskets of linens. Him reaches out hims hands.

‘Here’s your moppet. Just stay put. I’ll cradle you when we’re done.’ I close up the door.

A few women have brought thems trade down to the beach, and are handing over woven rugs and baskets to a pair of tall men what’re stood by the boats. Fourteen of the tall men walk up the beach in pairs, them head to the path what leads up the cliffs, to other homes of folk what do trade. One pair of tall men come towards this row of cottages. Them need the agreement of two to make the decision of one. Just as we’re suspicious of them, them dun trust us not to argue, especially where thems goods are concerned. Thems coats might be covered in seaspray and salt when them have crossed the surging waves to get here, but them are well stitched, as if somewhere on the main land there’s a great old woman who sits there with needles for fingertips, stitching in straight perfect lines, with the threads tucked away so them will never escape.

The knock, four raps on the door. Four raps again.

I open the front door.

 

For more about Jess’ second novel, Cooking With Bones, watch this video review from a fan:

Find out more: jessrichards.comTwitter, AmazonGoodreads

The Weekend Name Drop is a weekly feature on this blog, promoting people I have encountered who are doing creative things.

Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand. He is the author of three novels: Redeeming Brother Murrihy, Te Kauhanga and The Chain.

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