Women writing wickedness: salute our sinister sisters by horrifying yourself this Halloween with some monstrous madams.
Horror can appear in different forms, and means many different things to many different people. It’s in whispers from an empty attic, it’s in jerky movements beyond the edge of the campfire, it’s in vast and unstoppable forces of evil or, scariest of all, in the things people do to each other. Like any emotion, it’s hard to perfectly pin down and describe, but these are books that may send a frisson of fiction down your spine…
If you want to dig deep into the roots of the genre, one of the first horror writers of all was the fantastic Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein (also, basically the first science fiction writer ever, go Mary!)
Or prove to yourself that the classics still have the power to freak you out with Shirley Jackson. She’s inspired greats like Stephen King with her short stories, and her novels have a splendid atmosphere of terror. Her legacy is so great that the Shirley Jackson awards, given for outstanding physiological suspense, horror and dark fantastic fiction, commemorate her annually.
Want to know the best fictional name I have come across this year? In Tiffany McDaniel’s ‘The Summer that Melted Everything‘ one of our heroes – if you can call a man who publishes an invitation for the devil to come visit his sleepy backwater town a ‘hero’ – carries the incredible name of Autopsy Bliss. Strange accidents, deadly fevers, personal demons, and scariest of all, it’s set in the 80s…
For thirteen creepy, bloody, chilling tales, look beyond the more publicised male authors into the sinister hearts of these ghoulish gals:
Fiona Kidman’s latest book All Day at the Movies explores what it means to be a woman in New Zealand. It’s an episodic novel set over six decades. She explores where families were at and where they are going now.
Family is important to me as an only child I was often an observer looking in on families.
But she also says “I try not to put my family into books”.
This novel was inspired by the sight of abandoned tobacco kilns. Her father grew tobacco in KeriKeri and the memories of the Nicotiana scent drew her to setting her central character in the tobacco field of Motueka. The novel features a lot of pregnancies – as Owen Marshall observes, some more welcome than others. One of her characters doesn’t know who her father is.
Fiona acknowledges pregnancy is a huge issue in women’s lives. She is an adoptive mother herself, and acknowledges adoption was not handled well in the past. Recently her novels are set around a central historical character – but in this novel she wanted to say something about politics, how decisions made in Wellington affect people’s lives.
Fiona has always been a political animal. She was part of the 1981 Springbok tour movement as explored in her novel Beside the Dark Pool. Exploring the social context her characters inhabit over the decades gives her a vehicle to say something about how Wellington decisions affect their lives.
Looking at her characters as they deal with illegitimacy, estrangement, and abuse you may think she has a negative view of life and of men. But she says “I love men”. There are at least 5 positive men in the book, even though it may not seem that men come out well.
“I have had a lucky life” one of her characters says in the novel (and she observes it of her own life) which ends on an optimistic note. She looks at the circumstances of her characters and why things happen without making judgments. Authentic characters are important – how real people deal with things and how it affects them in 20, 30, 40 years time. Her characters become very real to her – they stand at the kitchen bench and come for rides with her in the car. By the time she sits down to write a novel they have their own voice which has to be listened to. Sometimes she is ready to let them go after a novel, and sometimes they don’t want to go away and reappear in another form like her character Jessie Sandal from Songs of the Violet Café.
Fiona has always been a feminist writer as is evident in A breed of Women. She sees herself not as a woman’s writer but a writer writing for women. She first thought of herself as a writer as a 22-year-old in the 1960s. It was in an era when it was embarrassing to be pregnant. She had worked at Rotorua Library and moved to Rotorua High School library when she married her husband who also worked there. When she got pregnant, students remarked “Got her up the duff eh Sir!”, leading to a request for her to leave the school. Such were the expectations of the era.
She left and started writing – submitting a play for a competition. Her play evoked the comment that it must have been written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.
I felt I did know stuff about being a woman that a middle-aged man in Wellington seemed not to know.
Fiona often struggled with expectations:
What am I doing sitting at the kitchen table, buying the kids clothes not preserving hundreds of jars and doing this.
She worked as a secretary of PEN and the NZ Book Council and hoped to help authors think of writing as working.
Her favourite genre is short stories but they don’t sell a lot of books and she loves poetry but working in other genres is necessary. She made as much money working in television in a month as writing in a couple of years.
Through working in television, she learnt to see as you would through the camera
through radio work she learn to listen especially to the silences
through journalism she learnt to ask questions
All have been useful in her writing work. Poetry is not so much thinking about the audience more spontaneous.
What is it about Katherine Mansfield that continues to capture the imagination? Is it her gamine figure and thoroughly modern bob? Is it the fact that she died so young, at only 34 with presumably many more stories in her left unwritten? Is it the idea of someone with such a proper upbringing would so fully embracing the literary, bohemian lifestyle? Is it the turbulent, drama-filled love life? Or is it even… the writing?
Last Sunday I shrugged on a heavy coat and ventured out into a grey and dismal Christchurch morning to hear two New Zealand fiction writers – Paula Morris and Patricia Grace.
The On Belonging session was advertised as exploring themes “themes of nostalgia, memory and belonging” however both women confessed very early in that neither of them had read that particular description before that morning, so things would likely veer off a bit. Writers, eh?
But, in fact, some of those themes did come through as Paula Morris encouraged Patricia Grace into remembrance and recollection over the course of the hour. The pair had an easy, relaxed rapport. Patricia Grace, whom I have never had the opportunity to hear speaking in public before, has a calm and softly spoken demeanour. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully.
To start with they spoke a bit about Grace’s background, and the degree to which she grew up in two worlds. That of her father’s family – rural and Māori, compared with the world of her mother’s family – urban and Pākehā. The divide between her life growing up in Wellington “hooning around the streets” with her cousins and crabbing at Mirimar Wharf, and the marae community of her father’s whānau, where she lives now. As a child she enjoyed the environment of sea and bush, with both in close proximity.
In fact, many of the memories she recalled over the course of the hour would factor in the sea, including the passage she read from her novel. I get the impression that Patricia Grace would not be comfortable living in a landlocked country or too far inland. As it is she seems to have a very strong sense of belonging in her seaside community with her brother, cousins and children all living in what Morris compared to a “family compound”.
Then they moved on to discussing Grace’s latest novel, Chappy which has several settings, including New Zealand, Japan, Europe and Hawaii. The novel is about Daniel, as he unpicks the story of his Māori grandmother and Japanese grandfather, the “Chappy” of the title.
Grace said “Chappy” grew out of a story she heard from her husband, who is from Ruatoria, about a Japanese shopkeeper who had lived there and was a much loved member of the community, but who was imprisoned on Somes Island during WWII, and then deported, leaving his New Zealand wife and family behind.
As an aside, due to various First World War centenaries this year, I’ve been looking at a lot of contemporary news reporting and this treatment of Kiwi Japanese during WWII is no different than that of New Zealand Germans in the earlier conflict. It seems we always repeat the same behaviours, demonising the enemy (and anything that reminds us of them sometimes, whether it’s justified or not).
Grace started wondering how this man had come to be living there and that formed the seed of what became the novel. The device of having Chappy’s story revealed by other characters was partly due to her belief that she couldn’t adequately convey the mindset and culture of a Japanese character though she felt she could “get into his heart as a human being”.
“Chappy” is Grace’s first novel in ten years, and Morris was at pains to point out this isn’t just laziness.
“People think when you’re a writer and you haven’t written a novel for ten years that you’re just lying around eating bon bons all day.”
In fact, life intervenes. Grace has seven children and a mother who lost her independence – family life does sometimes take precedence over writing novels.
Grace read from Chappy, a passage about sea journeys and stowaways.
Then Morris went on to ask Grace about her earlier novel, Tū (which in Morris’ opinion would make a great movie) and led to her sharing memories of being a child in Wellington during WWII. The American soldiers who gave the kids oranges and chewing gum, the ration books which she though were “cute”. Trams rattling up and down (accompanied by the sound of a tram, rattling past on Worcester Boulevard). The experience of waving her dad off on a military ship so immense she mistook it for a building.
She never intended to write a book about war but found her father’s notebooks and started researching. Her father had never talked about his war experiences (and she had got the impression that he’d never been at the front lines when, in fact, he had) and the stories she had heard from Māori Battalion men, who sang Italian songs, were mainly tales of mischief. Her research revealed otherwise.
Multi-culturalism and te reo Māori
Morris says that Grace is “subversive” and offers one of Grace’s quotes, from 1989, for comment.
New Zealand is a multi-cultural society but you wouldn’t know this from reading our literature.
Does she still feel that way?
Grace thinks that literature and the media have changed since then and technology has helped though she admits “I don’t do technology, really”.
She also has no issue with the novel as a “European form”. “You have to do your own thing,” she says “in the lens of the novel. Make it your own”. Morris believes that published literature is still fairly Pākehā dominated.
A comment from the audience led into an interesting discussion about whether Grace is “political”. The questioner says that “Potiki” and its use of te reo Māori really opened doors to the language for her without feeling educative. Was it intentional?
Potiki was published in 1986 and uses some Māori language components. At the time of its release, Māori was not yet an official language of New Zealand (this was achieved, after much campaigning, in 1987).
Accusations were made at the time that this use of te reo was “divisive” and intentionally political. Grace however thought she was just writing about ordinary people. Morris agreed in this saying that when she wrote Rangatira she used Māori words that lots of people would be familiar with, and any that weren’t would be clear from the context…but apparently not everyone agreed. Morris also pointed out that many writers do this and have to defend themselves, people like Junot Diaz who have to explain that “this is how my characters speak”.
Grace says that the only political part of “Potiki” was the absence of a te reo glossary. She’d had them before but felt that “a glossary is what you have for a foreign language”.
“Nobody did a glossary for me when I came across French in a book or anything”. Certainly my own reading experience with The Lord of the Rings novels and even The Chimes, is that it’s not necessarily an impediment to reading if occasional words are in an unfamiliar language (elvish) or specialised vocabulary (music).
It was a shame that the session had to stop just then because I felt that there was more that could have been discussed on that topic, but end it did.
I have no idea how I found this book. I was just sitting at the computer looking for a book. Now the book I was looking for didn’t have anything to do with chicks, digging or time lords, but there it was.
I quite like time lords, so I was curious. I knew Verity Lambert liked time lords, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Carole Barrowman did too. But a whole book written by chicks who dig time lords was a surprise. They all had different reasons for liking them and they all quite possibly had favourites.
While Doctor Who is off air, the Doctor is hopefully repairing his Tardis and maybe even getting its chameleon circuit to work. I think I could help him out. Not because I can run in high heels and mini-skirt. I can’t. I could get his Tardis fixed.
He probably can’t travel back through time and space to arrive outside the Tardis repair shop on Gallifrey, but he could go to the planet-sized library which contains every book ever written and get a book on how to repair a Tardis. That’s where I come in. I have a library card which isn’t valid for all libraries in time and space, but since when do small details like that stop the Doctor and his companions?
I do know how libraries are organised and I know how to ask the right questions. If the library has a copy of a Tardis repair manual, I could find it with the help of the Librarian. If the Tardis materializes within the library, we won’t need to borrow the repair manual, but if he does borrow it, the Doctor will be able to keep it for ages, then travel back in time and return it on time. How cool would that be?
Do you dig time lords?
Dare I ask, which one?
While you are waiting for the return of Doctor Who, why not borrow a DVD featuring your favourite Doctor.
One of the highlights of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013 for me has been discovering the work of British author Jackie Kay. How did I manage to live so long and not come across this woman? She is a multi-award winning poet, short story writer, memoirist and novelist. She writes for children. She’s also one of the most endearing, funny, exuberant people I have come across. When she walks in a room, the energy lifts. You can’t help but be drawn to her bright smile and her genuine warmth.
Jackie Kay’s writing contains the bittersweet wisdom of someone who’s faced big challenges in their life. She was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father then adopted by a white couple with Communist Party affiliations. In 1960s Glasgow this was unusual to say the least. This, together with her candid sexuality, means she’s faced prejudice from many quarters. Throughout it all, she’s stood by what she believes in. Jackie Kay is one amazing woman.
Her latest collection of short stories, Reality, Reality is brilliant. You’ve just got to read it. I bought it off the stand at the Festival and wolfed it down. The title story introduces a woman who performs daily cook-offs against imaginary competitors to the blinking red eye of her security alarm. At her session, Kay read from ‘Those are not my clothes’, a tragically funny story of an elderly woman in rest home. The author says she’s drawn to older women characters because their stories tend to disappear under the radar.
When I spoke to Jackie Kay, she told me she was on her way down to Christchurch on a kind of pilgrimage. Her adoptive parents met in Christchurch at the Coffee Pot above the Communist Party Bookshop. She was looking forward to finding the street they lived in which has apparently just been released from behind the Red Zone. In addition, her old neighbour from Glasgow is a psychologist and is now living in our fair city.
If you see Jackie, make her welcome. You’ll be very pleased you did.
Her latest work, Monkeys with Typewriters, is a guide to creative writing and contains Scarlett Thomas’ best advice. In conversation with Paula Morris, she said this is the book she wishes had been available when she started out.
The title comes from the Infinite Monkey Theorem which puts forward the proposition that a monkey, hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, could almost surely type the complete works of Shakespeare. Let’s just say it’s a long shot. According to Thomas there’s a one in 15 billion chance of a monkey typing the word banana, but this isn’t the point. The point is that it’s the words on the page that matter because they are the story. What was going on in the writer’s mind or life when s/he wrote them is irrelevant.
A couple of writing tips:
1. Make the task seem manageable. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a short novel of 60,000 words. Break that down into 3,000 words a day and you’ve written a novel in 20 days – doesn’t seem so hard now, does it?
2. The only thing that drives characters are desires and objectives. Like people they act for a reason. Find the one key driver that is a superobjective for your character, it could be the need for comfort/control/balance/fame/popularity, and you have the beginnings of a believable character.
Some authors moan about the difficulties of being a writer. Thomas believes this is because they haven’t worked at Pizza Hut. Her advice for discontented writers? “Do some rubbish jobs so you appreciate how wonderful being a writer really is.”
“I never considered doing anything else but writing. It was all I ever wanted to do.”
When I saw the name Anita Desai on the AWRF 2013 programme, I knew I’d move heaven and earth to get to Auckland to see her. I first discovered her work in my 20s and have pounced with delight on any new title that’s appeared since. I find her gentle wisdom captivating and her point of view intriguing. To think I’ve had the opportunity to talk in person to one of my favourite authors still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so in awe of her!
Anita Desai was born in pre-Partition Dehli to an Indian father and a German mother. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, her home life was different to others around her. She listened to music from around the world and there were books on the shelves. She describes Indian culture as ‘rich, loud and complex’ with a strong oral tradition of storytelling in which it was considered rude to withdraw with a book.
She learned English when she was at school and chose to write in the language she considers more flexible, more elastic than other languages. English contains many different influences and can be adapted to suit an author’s needs. When she started to write those around her saw this as ‘a harmless eccentricity, a nice quiet thing to do, not like being a dancing girl.’
And thank goodness she was given the opportunity to write. Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has set the bar high for new Indian authors who are receiving attention from the western publishing world today.
The Artist of Disappearance is the author’s latest work. It contains three novellas and proved to the ‘the most intense writing process I have ever been through’. The stories came to her virtually complete in themselves.
The novella form enables an author to take a section from the lives of the characters in which they undergo change. Unlike the short story, the form requires no neat conclusion. Novellas are like a slice of time from which readers draw their own conclusions.
Western literature is often preoccupied with the triumph of the individual over circumstances. The work of Anita Desai tells a different story. Her characters are not in control of life and her stories contain the awareness that ‘one is swept along by the tide of one’s own temperament and of history which is more powerful that you or I.’
Now, Tanya and I go back a long way. In another life, we wrote advertising copy together and I’ve followed her writing career with interest. I cheered when she published her first novel La Rochelle’s Road, an historical novel about British settlers on Banks Peninsula, and I was keen to hear what she was up to now.
PQ (Post Quake) Tanya moved to Auckland because her husband found work up here. She is living in a beach settlement half an hour out of the city where the surf crashes over a black sand beach. Auckland’s west coast is a great place for old surfers and writers to hang out, a laid-back community tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The couple plans to return to Christchurch permanently one day and they visit the region frequently as they still have a property on Banks Peninsula.
Tanya is currently working on a new novel. It’s a contemporary work and she feels she’s nearly half way through the process. When I ask if she’s happy in her work, she says everything else seems boring in comparison. She loves to write.
Her constant companion is a five month old Irish wolfhound puppy who is already the size of a well built Labrador. She says he’s crazy but a great companion.
Tanya will be appearing in History Repeating in the Limelight Room at the Aotea Centre on Sunday at 4pm. In this FREE session four writers will read sections from their work that reference the repeating of history.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Auckland, get along to the session. If not, place a hold on Anticipation at Christchurch City Libraries. Highly recommended contemporary New Zealand literature.
Graham Beattie spoke with Joanne Harris, Nicky Pellegrino and Felicity Price this afternoon at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It was a highly entertaining session about their work and ‘the magic and joy that can be hidden in the difficult, mundane stuff of everyday life.’
When Joanne Harris heard the topic, she thought the session was about food! She says that when she was eight or nine she decided she wanted to be a writer but her parents tried to dissuade her as their home library was full of works written by nineteenth century Romantic French Poets who had all ‘died penniless in the gutter from syphilis’. She didn’t let that put her off. She says, as a child of a French mother and an English father, she always felt different and her stories always seem to be about ‘someone who doesn’t fit in in one way or another’.
She wrote a ‘little book’ about life in a French village and her agent and publisher didn’t like it. Her publisher said it wouldn’t sell because it was full of old people and ‘no one in Europe really reads. It’s not a proper market.’ He suggested she set her novel in an American city and include lots of young people and sex. Of course, Chocolat went on to become a word-of-mouth bestseller then an Oscar-nominated movie. The experience taught her ‘no one actually knows anything at all’ and she’s continued to write her way. She is ‘fascinated with small communities and the volatile chemistry there’.
Nicky Pellegrino is also of mixed parentage. Her father is Italian and her mother English. Food has always been one of the things that crops up in her books. She believes ‘food is a way we show people we love them.’
In her most recent novel When in Rome, Nicky Pellegrino steps outside her usual approach to writing and bases the story around the life of tenor Mario Lanza. Although more famous that Frank Sinatra in his day, he’s been virtually forgotten. The author felt compelled to tell his story. She says, ‘the line between real life and your story becomes blurred’ which she sees as the most difficult part of historical writing.
Nicky Pellegrino says her work is often called an ‘easy read’ by critics but she says her whole aim is to ‘make the reader forget they’re reading’. She wants to give them a mini break, take them away from the problems in their lives. Nicky Pellegrino describes her work as ‘not chick lit but not hard work either’.
Felicity Price was adopted as a child. She says wine has more to do with her novels than food. She fell in love with writing when she was at school. ‘I would write poetry, bad poetry, during chemistry lessons,’ she says. When she left school, she went into journalism because it would enable her to write.
Her novels are written from the point of view of women – whether this is as wives of historical New Zealand figures or modern women juggling careers, children, husbands, and aging parents. Her Penny Rushmore novels are semi-autobiographical. They explore issues she was facing at the time such as breast cancer or a parent with Alzheimers. Her most recent book In her Mother’s Shoes looks at the issue of adoption and the impact it has on the birth mother, adoptive mother and child.
Felicity Price says she is ‘an advocate for good old fashioned realism in literature’.
These three authors have different approaches to writing but they all create worlds in which their characters play out our fears, hopes, disappointments and triumphs. They take us out of our own reality for a while. They give us a break, they revive and reassure us, so we can regain the strength to get on with the stuff of our lives.