Laurence Fearnley

My critical PhD focused on the first attempts to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook. My creative project was a novel The Hut Builder, which also centred on the mountain.

PhD awarded 2012

Laurence Fearnley is an award-winning novelist who holds an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington. Her novel The Hut Builder won the fiction category of the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards and was shortlisted for the international 2010 Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain writing. Her 2014 novel Reach was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Edwin and Matilda was runner-up in the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her second novel, Room, was shortlisted for the 2001 Montana Book Awards. Her most recent books are The Quiet Spectacular (2016) and Scented (2019), both published by Penguin.

In 2004 Fearnley was awarded the Artists to Antarctica Fellowship and in 2007 the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. In 2016 she won the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award and received a National Research Grant from the NZSA / Auckland Museum, and in 2017 she was the joint winner of the Landfall essay competition.

In 2019 she was awarded an Arts Foundation laureate. She lives in Dunedin with her husband and son.

Laurence writes: I couldn’t believe how much space there was. Everywhere I looked, I saw uninterrupted views of either land or sky. I thought that if I set out walking I would still be traveling well into the night and throughout the following day and perhaps, even, the day after that, as well. I remember turning to Dudley and saying, ‘You could walk for ever,’ and in response he looked across at me and nodded and I could see – I could honestly see – that he felt the same way. Like me, he was transfixed.

I saw tiny pin pricked holes made in the snow where drops of water had fallen from the tussocks. I saw the way the snow was an intense blue in the patches where it was shaded by the larger bushes. I saw footprints made by rabbits and hares, a crazy zigzag of steps which went nowhere in particular.

It was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen and I didn’t have the words to describe it. I felt it though. I let out an incredible whoop of joy and skipped into the air, laughing and laughing; there was so much joy inside me. I couldn’t contain myself. For the first time in all my memory, I could not contain myself. (An extract from The Hut Builder describing Boden – age 7 – sighting the Mackenzie Basin for the first time.)

'I enrolled in the PhD course in March 2009 and began writing a novel, The Hut Builder. The idea for the novel grew from a failed attempt to write a memoir about my love of tents – and the places I have camped over the years. One section of that memoir was devoted to my childhood trips to Aoraki/Mount Cook where – as a child from age three upwards – my parents took me and my brother tramping and skiing on the Ball Glacier. I have very fond memories of the area around Foliage Hill and White Horse Hill – now excavated to create a car-park for camper vans. I realized how much of what I loved back in the 1960s-70s no longer exists: The camping area has been diminished, the Ball Glacier ski-field has gone due to the retreat of the glacier and the settlement at Lake Pukaki and the road we traveled along are now underwater – a result of the dam. So, added to this is the threat of turning the spacious Mackenzie basin into dairy units – large, open areas and the sense of a big sky being reduced.

'I set The Hut Builder in this region but in the years 1938 – present day. The central character, Boden Black, grows up in Fairlie (where I come from) and lives a pretty quiet life. As a young man he travels to Aoraki/Mount Cook where he helps build a climbing hut on the slopes of the mountain. The people he meets over the summer have a profound influence on him – cause him to re-think his ideas about national heroes and open his eyes to the possibility of becoming a poet.

'The critical side of my PhD focused on Aoraki/Mount Cook but concentrating on the first attempts made to climb the mountain from 1882–1915. What my research hopes to show is that there are differences between New Zealand and overseas climbers – both in how they climbed and how they wrote about their experiences. The first New Zealand climbers were largely self-taught with little mountaineering experience prior to attempting an ascent of the mountain. European climbers tended to climb with professional guides and came to New Zealand after spending a few seasons climbing in the European Alps. Travelling to New Zealand, to the "virgin peaks" was, in itself, an adventure and one they detailed in the books they wrote.

'Aoraki/Mount Cook was first climbed in 1894 by New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, George Graham and Jack Clarke and yet it seems to me that these names are not so well-known as that of Freda du Faur – the first woman to climb the mountain in 1910. Mountaineers – like du Faur – tended to come from the better-off middle and upper classes, people who had the money and time to mountaineer. Fyfe, Graham and Clarke, by contrast, were labourers and would eventually find employment as guides – leading clients such as du Faur up the mountain. The "voices" – that is the written word – associated with mountaineering tended to come from those from of the upper class – George Mannering, A.P Harper, Freda du faur, E.A. FitzGerald – whereas the response of the "working" climber is relatively unknown.

'I see myself as a novelist and have found the critical component of the PhD pretty daunting. I find myself latching onto interesting snippets as I research – creating characters out of the people I am supposed to be studying and story-lines from the events depicted.'

Read more

New Zealand Book Council writer file

Penguin Books author profile

2019 Arts Foundation laureate announcement