“Don’t forget I grew up in a world where she was a monster” – an interview with Joanne Drayton, Anne Perry’s biographer

Joanne Drayton and Liz GrantJoanne Drayton wrote about Juliet Hulme in The Search for Anne Perry. Think murder of the most sensational kind, intense local interest and some critical responses. If someone has been punished for a crime, can they go on to lead a useful life and can they gain some form of forgiveness from society?

Joanne is a Christchurch person and I asked her when she become aware of the Parker-Hulme story.

My mother was at school with them, at Girls High. She was a couple of years older and remembered the massive fuss, the incredible swirl around it and the massive shock and horror. When I grew up that story was always there. It was a cautionary tale, but my mother was always quite sympathetic, that in some way she could identify with what it was like to be a teenager. I think she thought some of the headlines in the papers were quite cruel. It was unusual at the time, another teenager putting herself in their position.

What drew you to write about Anne Perry?

I had written a biography of Ngaio Marsh and I’m interested in the crime fiction genre for all different kinds of reasons. It’s interesting in terms of the biography of the person who writes them but also in terms of popular culture and why it’s become so interested in crime fiction.

When Anne Perry was revealed as Juliet Hulme, Joanne Drayton sent one of her books to her mother, and her mother often sent her clippings about the story: “It was part of my relationship with my mother”. The story of Ngaio Marsh and the Parker-Hulme murder were stories from her place – Christchurch. “Its about understanding the stories in your life” She saw Ngaio Marsh as a model, and thinks what Anne Perry has gone on to achieve is amazing.

Would you agree that Anne Perry is and always has been a powerful personality.

Yes. The answer to that is quite complex. She is a person who is quite a strong presence, she has quite definite ideas about things, she can be quite dogmatic, but she’s also a person who has a sort of need to be reassured. There is something in her makeup that is unsure, insecure and at times a little bit needing, I don’t think needy. The difference – the needy person is quite demanding and it’s all about them. Sometimes she needs that reassurance but she doesn’t ask for it and doesn’t expect it. She is quite a distinctive person. She seems self confident but if you scratch a little bit she has been quite affected by her life… You can’t make a quick assessment of this person.

How did you deal with writing about such a person. How do you avoid the perception that it would be easy to be manipulated by such a strong person. They might say that you were writing the approved Anne Perry version?

I am a  biographer, I’m quite used to dealing with those issues with lots of families. Everyone wants you to tell their story. I am only as good as my own integrity and my ability to find my own voice, there is no way that I would be brought out by anything. I go into every situation with quite a critical mind, you’ve got to weigh everything up. Don’t forget I grew up in a world where she was a monster. Anything that sees what I’ve done as simple, biased or influenced is just naive. I will not write a defence of what I’ve done but I will give an oral one because I’m not going to waste my time with pathetic commentary. I’m aware of what’s out there, the accusations and negativity, frankly I’d rather not waste my time, I’d rather write my next book. I’m happy to talk about issues but that’s the way I’d like to deal with them as an oral response.

Perhaps some of it has come from your focus not so much on the crime but on her life after that?

I’ve dealt with every aspect that is relevant to my book which is to deal with her adult life. It was intended to be a literary biography. That is the story that is new, that helps complete the other one … It was important for people to understand what in fact New Zealand had got right. Because this woman had been through a horrific experience –  self-created but horrific – and New Zealand left her in a position where she could become what she’s become and I think that ‘s a credit to New Zealand. Why do we always have to look at things in the negative, why can’t we take some credit for that woman, 21 years old when she left New Zealand, she’s pretty normal, as normal as you can be after doing what she has done and having the life experiences she’s had, and she’s gone on and made something of her life.

When you are back in Christchurch do you see the landscapes of the story differently now because you can see the young Anne in that?

I could only see Juliet in there always and for me knowing her … for me I’ve made peace with some of that story as well … Having discovered the adult, it takes away some of the brutality of it. There is nothing less brutal about that murder, but to be able to see that something positive has come out of it, it’s quite cathartic. When I go back to those places … I see Anne, who I know and I feel comfortable with and who I like. It’s nice for me to come back with this story. It would be nice if she could come back.

Do you think she’d want to?

No. I think she would come back if she was welcomed, if she felt that people wouldn’t be hostile and critical and accusatory. I think it would be quite helpful for her but that won’t happen and she knows it won’t happen. In some ways it would be real closure for her. It’s acknowledgment for her coming back to the place where she did something that is really really wrong and has gone on and made a life for herself I think would be quite a victory in a way. I haven’t talked about that with her… I think she’d be very tempted to go back to Auckland but she does get hounded by New Zealand media. People don’t realise that. She’s constantly approached and sometimes threatened.

What kind of threats?

We’re going to make this programme on you (bit like the threat I made with the book) and if you don’t want us to just say what we like, we want you to participate.

Everyone will have a different take on this complex story but I can only recommend that you read it and also read So brilliantly clever. You could also read the Diana Wichtel interview and watch the Guyon Espiner 60 minutes interview or the Anne Perry Interiors documentary if you can, and make up your own mind.

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