Early shakes from a short-lister

By Arrun Soma
Photography by Connie McDonald

Featured in Capital #4
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Pip Adam’s novel Nothing to See (Victoria University Press, 2020) has been short listed for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

She’s already won the award, back in 2018 for her novel The New Animals (VUP).

Go further back, like, back to September 2013, Pip was about to release I’m Working on a Building (VUP), a decidedly Wellington novel. At the time she had a cuppa with journalist Arrun Soma.

Read his original story below.

It’s been a shaky old time in Wellington recently, and the buildings here are swaying when the earth moves beneath them. There are many Wellingtonians with frayed nerves, but what about the buildings? What if they could talk? What if the buildings had feelings and personalities?

Pip Adam is set to release her latest book, a novel where some familiar buildings become characters. Not human characters, but characters nonetheless. It’s a curious idea. Entitled I’m Working on a Building and it follows the main character, Catherine, who’s a structural engineer.

Catherine lives and works in Wellington, and the novel centres around the engineers she works with, and the buildings they work on. Some of the buildings that feature in the novel are 1 Featherston St, the Rankin Brown, Victoria University building, the Te Puni student accommodation building and the Alan MacDiarmid building, which is also part of Victoria University.

For Catherine human relationships sometimes don’t work. She finds dealing with and getting along with other people problematic. She finds, however, her relationships with buildings are really good. This is how the buildings come to feature as companions to Catherine. But buildings aren’t alive. And they aren’t dead. They are somewhere in between, and Pip Adam uses this book to explore what that state is like, and how humans can interact with these towering structures. Within the pages, there’s also a big earthquake that rattles the capital city.

Although Pip says she always wrote, it was only after completing her Masters degree with the Institute of Modern Letters and a year of concentrated writing that she thought it might be a career. Her first book, Everything We Hoped For, came out of that year, and went on to win the 2011 NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for fiction, and she’s an Arts Foundation New Generation Award recipient.   

Pip is a passionate writer. She was rejected three times by the IML and opted for Library Studies, before finally being accepted and eventually completing her PhD in creative writing at Victoria.

She’s chosen Wellington as her home where she writes and does some university teaching. Pip loves the movement of buildings. She loves architecture and structural engineering. It’s no surprise then that her PhD question was: in what ways can the language of structural engineering inform, alter and enlarge the language of fiction?

Choosing the language of engineering to write her novel  was a self invoked challenge. I needed to  be uncomfortable in a creative setting, she said. Engineers’ language of maths and physics is more difficult to work with, whereas for example the language of architects is much more about feelings and closer to the creative world.

“Restraint breeds creativity, for me,” Pip says. ”I need to be uncomfortable. If I feel safe I’m in trouble.”  One of the great things about Victoria University Press is that they take risks, says Pip. “My first book of short stories was odd, they don’t resolve in any usual way.” Some reviews described them as bleak.

Pip hopes to make people think about buildings, and how we interact with them. She wants to change people’s perceptions of how we see things, and so we recognise the beauty of the landscapes we live in. She says many of us are squashed into cities surrounded by buildings, and we should think about that more, and appreciate the buildings that are part of our everyday lives.


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