Auckland, New Zealand's Emily Perkins makes two appearances at the Vancouver Writers Fest Sunday, Oct. 21: The Sunday Brunch, 11 a.m. at Performance Works (sold out) and 1: 30 p.m. at the Improv Centre. For full schedule visit writersfest. bc.ca.
A feckless father, sisters who share a lover and a New Zealand boy who runs away to join the circus: all are members of the unusual family at the heart of Emily Perkins' latest novel, The Forrests.
But according to the author, another important character plays a huge role in shaping the world of The Forrests: Time.
"I'm just fascinated by the way that we experience time," says Perkins, speaking by phone Monday from a hotel room in Dresden. "Sometimes it does seem very expanded and prolonged and sometimes it's enormously truncated."
Currently in Germany to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, Perkins will touch down in Vancouver this weekend to appear at the Vancouver Writers Festival. The Forrests is Perkins' fourth novel, and follows her highly-acclaimed 2008 book, Novel About My Wife. That novel won the Believer Book Award and the Montana Book Award.
The Forrests follows the life of Dorothy Forrest, one of four children in a family who emigrate from New York to New Zealand in the early 1970s. Subsisting on the father's meager trust-fund allowance, the family leads an unstable, hardscrabble life as he tries without success to start an acting career in Auckland.
"I was interested in what happens in a family when the parents' relationship is such that they really can't live together and they really can't live apart," says Perkins. "The way that that does exclude children . . . particularly the older ones in The Forrests, they sort of bear the brunt of that."
The siblings' troubled upbringing continues to haunt them as they grow into adulthood, get married, have children of their own, enter middle age and then travel towards the end of life. Through it all, life never gets any easier, although it always continues to surprise.
Perkins doesn't focus on milestone events like first kisses, weddings, or births. Instead, each chapter tells the story of a seemingly random chunk of the characters' lives, with months or years elapsing between each section.
Perkins says she was intent on "focusing on a particular moment, a particular kind of mood or experience, almost like a short story, and then discovering in that how it connects up with the other parts of the life."
Change and transformation - in personalities, relationships and financial and social status - is a central theme.
"Dorothy asks . . . 'Do you think people can really change?' and I think that's one of the questions of the book," says Perkins. "Are we living one existence that could be combined into a single narratives, or do we experience life as lots of miniature narratives? Are we different selves at different times?"
The two main characters, Dorothy and her sister Evelyn, end up living "non-heroic" lives as wives and mothers, which Perkins celebrates in intensely detailed, sensual passages. Her depictions of parenthood - equal parts anguish, boredom and ecstasy - are particularly apt.
"In my life it's been the most transformative experience," she says of becoming a parent. "It just opens your heart . . . it just cracks you wide open."
In her early 20s, Perkins left New Zealand for the U.K., a rite of passage for many young people who grow up in the small, isolated country. She ended up living in London for 11 years, where she was offered a publishing contract and her career as a writer took off. Perkins published two novels and two short stories while living in England's capital.
But in 2005 Perkins and her husband, also a New Zealander, returned home, compelled by the desire to offer their own three children the same "good New Zealand childhood" they'd experienced.
"There's a casualness and a relaxedness to life here that, having lived away, I see as a good thing," says Perkins. "Being able to quickly escape the city for "physical openness" and nature was also something that was not on offer in London.
"I think if we hadn't had the children, we might not have returned," says Perkins. "But I'm very glad we did, because it sort of felt like the right time in life in general."
Emily Perkins appears on Sunday, Oct. 21 in The Sunday Brunch (sold out) and Time Passages. For more information, visit www.writersfest.bc.ca.