“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.

Watch a movie! at the book festival!

Because we have the amazing Joanne Drayton here to talk about her recent book The Search for Anne Perry, the clever festival people have managed to organise three screenings of the 2009 documentary Anne Perry: Interiors as a kind of hors d’oeuvre (or maybe a counterpoint? I’ll let you know), before Joanne’s presentation, 3.30pm tomorrow (Saturday).  I caught the first screening this morning at 10am, and there was another session straight after that at 11.30, but if you missed both of those there is one final chance to see it on Sunday at 3.30pm.

It’s well worth a watch, even despite a bit of a glitchy start, and notwithstanding the 3D surround-sound experience of sitting next to a woman whose bottle of fizzy drink exploded spectacularly all over her about halfway through.  The YMCA is an interesting venue to be in, and after I stopped expecting someone to burst through the door to make me start exercising, I settled down and really enjoyed the documentary.  It’s a beautiful piece of film-making, and a very interesting portrait of a no doubt difficult subject.  There are moments of comedy, and the undoubted star of the show is definitely the small spotty terrier, but overall it’s a mesmerising and poignant portrayal of a woman who, I have to say, remains a mystery still, even despite the increasing amount of material being produced about her.

I managed to write 5 pages of notes in the dark, and almost all of the words are legible, but I’m not going to share them until after tomorrow’s session with Joanne Drayton.  I will be really interested to see how (or if) the two pictures mesh.  In the meantime, you should think about attending Sunday’s viewing (it’s free!), and make sure you grab a ticket for Joanne’s session tomorrow as well.  And if, as it seems so many of us in this city are, you are really obsessed with Perry/Hulme, and Parker, and those long-ago Christchurch events, remember that the library has copies of Drayton’s new book, last year’s book So Brilliantly Clever, by Peter Graham, and a raft of other information as well.

Remembrance of festivals past

Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 logoIn the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.

It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful  New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.

Margaret Mahy, mesmerising on the stage and asking the most amazing questions from the floor.  And Don McGlashan with the Seven Sisters in the Town Hall.

Cover: GoldEnough looking back, it’s time for some new memories and not long to wait for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. On my most likely to be memorable list are Emily Perkins, John Lanchester, Chris Cleave, Michael Smythe, Joanne Drayton.

Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.

What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?

Painting a picture

Rita Angus
Rita Angus

Philip Norman won a Montana for his biography of Douglas Lilburn so knows a bit about the art of biography. He also knows a lot about the art of chairing a session at a writers festival, demonstrated  by his graceful, knowledgeable and witty performance with these three biographers.

Philip Norman (I will be using both his names because he is a composer and it is a convention when writing about composers to use both names if the subject is living and only the surname if they are dead – what’s the use of learning a fascinating fact like that if you can’t immediately show it off) began by stating that he was going to be an easy chair, in fact a la-z-boy.  This set the tone for a model session with a relaxed panel who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Perceptive questions elicted  interesting answers – I particularly liked the “which work would you recommend?” question. Joanne Drayton thought Artists in crime, Colour scheme and Died in the wool of Ngaio Marsh’s 32 titles and yes she has read all 32, some two or three times.

Pat Unger subverted the impossibility of choosing just one of Bill Sutton’s works by choosing three series; the Threshold, Landscape Synthesis and Plantation series.

Forced to it, Jill Treveleyan recommended one of Rita Angus’ Goddess portraits and one of the watercolours (when the Angus show comes to Christchurch pay close attention to the watercolours – they are miraculous). Anyone who has been to Wellington lately can’t have missed the image on the cover of the biography – Rita’s the size of Te Papa on the side of Te Papa but Trevelyan didn’t exactly chose this image for the cover, it was chosen by marketing because …

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