Sport 36: Winter 2008
Barbara Anderson interviewed by Damien Wilkins
Barbara Anderson is the purest giver of pleasure in New Zealand fiction. Her books are funny, sure—what happens in them is frequently comedic. People do stupid stuff. Life is absurd, which brings pain of course and deep, wise amusement. But her sentences are funny too. Her vocabulary is funny, her word order, her rhythms. Her wonderful way with language delivers uplift for anyone with half an ear out for the surprise and strangeness of a mind thinking aloud:
To our left lie the mountains, but Ruth can only glance.
Shadowed with clouds and wreathed in mist, their leviathan shapes of blue, grey and purple roll on forever. They are mysterious and unknown, and likely to remain so.
We agree with the psalmist who wrote, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.' We nod our heads in unison. However, we are not convinced that our help cometh from the Lord, let alone that He made Heaven and Earth.
Ruth adjusts one of her cushions with a quick heave and says that if the help which cometh from the hills doesn't come from the Lord, where does it come from? That we can't have it both ways.
That's from her indelible short story, 'Day Out'. Two friends driving over the Rimutaka Hill, thinking about their funerals.
Barbara is humble in this interview, mystified even, when it comes to talking about where her style came from; whatever its origins, I think she invented a new prose line in our literature. Her trademark is the run-on sentence which swallows the exterior world with rapid observations at the same time as singing a song of the interior life:
We laugh some more, touching for warmth, touching for contact, touching for old times and remembering and for the wonder of our lives and reunion after so long when we had almost forgotten we existed, the other one that is.'
I was working at Victoria University Press when we published her amazing first book of stories I think we should go into the jungle. I remember that we thought about punctuating some of the more extreme examples of this breathless style. Would the reader be lost? We thought for about five seconds. The reader had already worked it out.
I used the word 'pure' to describe the pleasures of the fiction. It might be wrong. I don't mean saintly, angelic; Barbara is not on their side. I was trying to suggest that unlike a number of other writers with a deep comic gift, you sense that she finds the world punishing enough and therefore mostly refrains from punishing her characters, and never punishes her readers. This is not to say, anyone in her work gets a free pass from life's trials, only that the trials—marriage, death, ageing, art, love—arrive on the page with such vivacity and lightness as to feel not only new but almost surmountable. Almost.
Barbara's fictional world is our world but seen through a basically benevolent lens. (How frequently her characters express delight and amazement; how quickly their rages end.) Then just at the edges of the lens, a cloudiness.
I stare at the heat haze shimmering against the Island, the glint of silver on the pale horizon, and wonder how many peasants have laboured how many hours to gather the flowers to crush the fragrance to make the scent that Mrs Clements wears. This is not the type of thought that gets you anywhere. Nevertheless it is the type I have when I am with Mrs Clements.
More than a few times in the course of our conversation here Barbara used the words 'enjoyment' and 'fun'. And while it would be crazy to lumber these words with too much explication, I do think they signal something more than just the passing satisfactions we might get from a nice pair of mittens or the sun on our face. (Though of course Barbara's fiction can dwell beautifully on exactly these 'minor' moments.) The work itself carries a conviction, I think, that being a writer is a stroke of such good fortune that to use it for any purpose but a celebratory one is an act of bad faith and most likely of bad art.page 77
This interview took place at the Oriental Bay apartment in Wellington where Barbara and Neil Anderson have lived for the past decade. Barbara's autobiography, which was in progress at this time, covers her childhood, then describes the life of a naval wife and mother, travelling from posting to posting. Barbara's writing life began at around the time of her husband's retirement following a highly successful career. For the past twenty years Neil has been Barbara's typist. She writes in longhand and Neil enters the work on the computer, giving Barbara a printed text on which she makes corrections.
I've been meeting Barbara regularly for lunch at a Wellington café for many years now. I love our lunches. She tells me stories and then I tell her what I've been reading and she writes down the names of books. Sometimes I wish I'd written down her stories. A few of them are in her autobiography; a few shall not be repeated.
She's rightly proud of what she's achieved as a writer and I find this pride deeply affecting. I remember the day she showed me the review of one of her novels by the great English writer Penelope Fitzgerald. 'She is a novelist of great talent, well qualified to write black comedy. But she has, too, the comprehension of human incomprehension, the pity for human pity, that makes it possible to write tragedy.' I think it's the best summary of the work yet. It meant a great deal to Barbara to be noticed by such a good noticer. It meant a great deal to me to be allowed to see that. It's the sort of generosity that marks the life and the work.DW:
Nick Hornby is quoted on the back cover of several of your books saying 'Barbara Anderson is a born writer', which might be a good place to start. As well as being very nice, it's a clever thing to say really, isn't it, because it signals to the reader that despite the author's biography—didn't publish a book until she was sixty—there's a naturalness and immediacy that can't be missed. Do you think you were a born writer? And what does that phrase mean to you?page 78 BA:
I think it's a rather unhappy phrase. I prefer the Janet Frame comment, 'natural writer'. Nick Hornby also said he enjoyed my book more than any he'd read that year. But it was February when he said that, so it was loaded! Of course I was enchanted to be called anything.DW:
One of the reactions to anyone who starts late in writing, I suppose, besides marvel, is a sort of pity—'She missed out on writing for so long; think of all those lost works'—do you consider there are lost books?BA:
No. One of the things I've had to do because I'm working on my own autobiography is go back and read some of my books, which is not something I do normally. And with one or two of them, I think 'How did I do that?' And I think how lucky I have been. I don't think 'woe, woe' in any way.DW:
It's idle speculation but had you followed a more conventional writing career and say published your first novel in your early thirties, your book would have been a contemporary of Owls Do Cry, Maurice Shadbolt's The New Zealanders, you would have beaten Maurice Gee into print by several years… the late start made you almost a contemporary of my generation, didn't it?BA:
Yes, except that of course in, say, a novel like Portrait of the Artist's Wife, that covered forty years. I was drawing on a life lived, which made me not exactly contemporary.DW:
Yes, I was going to say that the other advantage of the late starting fiction writer is the rather obvious one of life experience. Was there a sense of a dam bursting and the fiction flooding the Anderson household? Your books came with a certain rapidity and urgency.BA:
No, not really. When I started writing it was odd because I'd always had a great interest in poetry and I thought how wonderful it would be to be a poet. I think it is 'the highest form'. And I can't do that. If I'm sorry about anything it was not to be able to write poetry. But then when I started writing page 79stories I thought, 'This is great fun.' I found more and more that I was enjoying it. Also people were enjoying reading the stories.DW:
When those first stories came out, you were drenched in Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley, rather than, say, Somerset Maugham or someone—can you talk about those chiefly American influences on your prose?BA:
Aren't they great, those writers. I think Donald Barthelme is all by himself. A one-off job. The Americans were wonderful but I wouldn't have thought I got anything in terms of influence out of those writers. Who could? Maybe something from Grace Paley, but no.DW:
The thing that was striking about those stories of yours was their freshness, and a narrating voice that couldn't immediately be put together with your biography.BA:
That's what they said in England. Dan Franklin, my editor, or my about-to-be editor, who was with Secker and Warburg when I first met him in about 1989, before he went to Cape, told me later it was a surprise that I turned out to be, well, older than expected, shall we say.DW:
He published all your books at Cape—was he keen right away?BA:
Keen on something, yes. But Caroline Dawnay, my newly achieved agent, had told me that nobody could take short stories from a totally unknown person and had I anything else? I told her I'd started on Girls High. I think I had the first six chapters but I had a plan for the rest. So she said could she look at that? Neil, my husband, thought I'd gone mad—as indeed I had—and I wrote all night doing the Contents page beginning with '1. Staff Meeting' and finished with '17. Leaver's Play'. So Dan ended up taking Girls High on the basis of very little, though they'd seen the short stories, which they published later. But yes, he told me everyone in the office was surprised when I turned up claiming to be me.page 80 DW:
If we could stay for just a moment on this same line of lateness, you're writing your autobiography now and in an obvious sense it's the life of a writer, but because the writing life is postponed it's also simply the story of someone growing up. In the sections I've read there are probably three or four mentions of this deferred career but it's not the great animating thing in your life, is it? Reading, maybe. Your father was an influence here, wasn't he?BA:
Yes. My grandfather too. My father was a doctor and it's hard for doctors to do a lot of reading. But he used to take me to the library. He was into whodunits and he motored through those. When I went to boarding school, reading wasn't exactly encouraged there. But I had a good friend, Jan, and we discovered poetry together and we used to bang away at each other, quoting lines.DW:
The memoir is littered with fragments of poems, bits of song. You're a great memoriser of lines. Does literature need this quality of being memorable for you? Recitable almost?BA:
Well, I've had up to now a very good memory. And up to the time she died, Jan and I would ring each other and say 'Have you read this?' 'But I don't like him.' 'Oh but you must!' You need people like that.DW:
And you were keeping a notebook, jotting things down?BA:
That was a good thing from school. One of the teachers, who came from England, told us we should keep a commonplace book. Mine's sitting there right now.DW:
You still write in it?BA:
Occasionally there's a snatch of something, in the newspaper or somewhere, and you want it. There was a good one recently. You come across those signs in parks: 'Please don't feed the pigeons!' Someone had written in to say that old people continue to feed the pigeons because they know that there's someone who's still interested in them! It's true. Good on the pigeons, I say. There's another one. 'One must, as one grows older, refuse to page 81be considered of no interest.' I met someone recently who told me, 'Oh well, Barbara, once you're over eighty you must accept the fact that no one is the slightest bit interested in you!'DW:
Do you think that's true of you as a writer? That people think, she's too old to be interesting?BA:
Well, I haven't written a novel in so long.DW:
Can we go back to poetry, which was what you wanted to do when you attended Bill Manhire's undergraduate original composition class. Had you given up poetry by the end of the class?BA:
And wasn't it a radio play exercise, a piece of dialogue, that really kick-started you?BA:
Yes, it was. I wrote a little play and when it was taken for radio, I was amazed.DW:
So what's the move from wanna-be poet to someone who can do voices? What kind of poet were you?BA:
Oh bad! I still read a lot of poetry but as a writer, for whatever reason, it was not for me.DW:
The radio plays prompted an interest in the theatre, didn't it?BA:
I wrote a few plays and they were workshopped in Christchurch and Auckland. Indeed, there was a whole fandango! They few you around the country and you got all your food. You thought you were Peter Pan. But again, my plays didn't make it through. It was not for me. It was Bill again who said why don't you put your stories into a book. I don't think I would have thought of it otherwise and anyway how did you go about doing it?DW:
Can we stay with the plays a little longer though. You had some sort of run-in, didn't you? We're talking about the mid-80s— not an easy time for a writer, in terms of politics, and especially perhaps for a woman writer?page 82 BA:
I wrote a play about two women who loved each other. They had taught dancing until one of them married a man. I never used the word lesbian to describe them. Anyway, there was great uproar at question-time after the play was performed in the workshop. I'd written a scene in which a farmer explains to his wife, who was a bit thick, about the two women. And he says, 'It's like a pair of albino turkeys, you know, it happens from time to time.' Naturally this did not go down well with some of the audience. Looking back it was so naïve of me. I was attacked and I remember bursting into tears—from astonishment. I was stunned. I wanted to show how good these women were, now one was lost.DW:
I remember we had a conversation a few years ago when you said the problem with writing autobiography was that you knew what was going to happen. I think you meant you'd be bored. How have you stopped yourself from being bored?BA:
I certainly haven't been bored. I've been fascinated. There are problems to do with how one approaches certain events. My younger brother Colin died when I was six, and you've got to work out how to write about that.DW:
When you're recording or recreating your childhood, because your mother and father and your aunts and uncles are no longer here, perhaps you have a certain freedom. I wonder if the closer you come to the present day, the tougher it gets?BA:
Yes, I think that's true. Because of various things that have happened in my recent life, it is difficult. But that's not the whole story. Again because of publishing books and being a writer, I've met so many great young people. I've enjoyed those friendships enormously.DW:
The novel wears a disguise always in that its voice either belongs to a character or to a narrator—some tone that is distinct and doing function's work—but the autobiography—it's you, isn't it? Did you have any trouble sounding like yourself when you started writing it?page 83 BA:
No, no, no, I remember very well that gormless little kid with her mouth hanging open. I look at the photos and she's there. It's me! I was also frightfully shy. Hopelessly, gormlessly shy! My parents actually sent me away from the home to various relatives to see if that would cure me. I think what cured me was going to boarding school and more, going to university in Otago. Bliss.DW:
The other surprise for me from the memoir was that you were dreamy.BA:
Oh hopelessly dreamy, again with my mouth hanging open. If you're not careful I'll show you the photos. But to get back to your original question about getting a voice, I've never done that with my writing. I start writing and I go on.DW:
You've said that you don't know what's going to happen but that you do need to know the ending.BA:
I think having an idea about where the thing will end does help you with the structure.DW:
Do you think you've changed as a writer over your career, or that the novels mark some sort of progress?BA:
They were done so quickly. I was writing a novel almost every year for a while. That was exciting.DW:
Can we return to the memoir? I wanted to ask you about good form, manners. You make the comment that you never saw your parents touch each other, and returning to your brother's death, that you as children were not allowed to attend the funeral. I think there's a recognition of this as a failure of feeling and imagination on the part of the adult world. However, am I right also in thinking you share at least some of this belief in the dignity of restraint? A suspicion of excess?BA:
Manners were very important, and I think that can be overdone of course. But I still have 'Bite on the bullet' as a piece of advice in tough times, that would be considered silly now, wouldn't it.page 84 DW:
One English reviewer said you had 'a nose for the poetry of cliché', which is a good phrase and very accurate. You do savour those little turns of speech, often banal or clichéd, by which we all get along. Can you talk about this in your writing?BA:
I do love cliché! I went to see a doctor years ago and as he was dealing with my hand. I said, 'I understand you've got a house in Waikanae, that must be nice.' And he replied, with great solemnity, 'Yes, we are deeply blessed.' I mean that's got to be the worst kind of cliché—as if God had something to do with where he lives.DW:
You mentioned Dan Franklin earlier, and it strikes me that perhaps one of the great pushes behind your work has been the fact that you've had a prestigious and long-term UK publisher, and a great agent, Caroline Dawnay, who's become a friend. How significant has that been? I mean not only the personal relationships but also the idea that your books had another address, another outlet beyond New Zealand?BA:
I certainly have enjoyed their company—Dan Franklin and Caroline Dawnay. I like them both very much. And it has been good to be published overseas, and to have those fresh responses.DW:
Can I ask about critics, or book reviewers really, since criticism hardly exists any more. There's one moment in your autobiography where you talk about a reviewer who said you'd got something wrong in Long Hot Summer. It was whether people in the 1950s were adopting their Maori names, having worn a Pakeha one, and the reviewer said this was an anachronism. You point to the facts of your own experience. It's just a small thing but clearly you want it on the record that Barbara Anderson didn't get it wrong, the reviewer did. Overall how do you feel about the critical reception of your books?BA:
I didn't know there had been any particularly. 'Reception' sounds too grand. I think they've been okay, the reviews. Perhaps there is a difference between here and the UK. Their reviewers have one advantage. They are a lot better paid.page 85 DW:
I was also thinking that there's been a slight feeling among reviewers here that you're less interesting if you write another novel about the middle-class.BA:
Oh, Damien, what can I do? I promise I vote the right way.DW:
Have you a favourite among your own books?BA:
I like Long Hot Summer.DW:
Because it's closest to your childhood?BA:
Yes. But also I think that novel was viewed with suspicion here because of its treatment of Maori. The fact that those events I describe happened, or could have happened about seventy years ago, didn't matter. It's a good book I think.DW:
I'd like to end by asking you whether the act of writing your memoir has given you a new perspective on your life, or whether you've become aware of a pattern as to how things have proceeded? You've used the word 'lucky' in this interview, so maybe I should know the answer to this question already—is it all just luck and circumstance?BA:
No my own biography has not given me a new perspective of my life. I wish it had, it might be interesting—for me. I know nothing regarding the meaning of life. Shakespeare got nearest for me and many others in his seven ages of man:
At first the infant, mewling and puking…
And on through the ages until 'second childishness':
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Beautifully put, except for those who die too soon. I am thinking of calling my last book Nearly There. Any good?