Letters — Issue 109

Mud on the tracks

I want to say a few things about some connotations in the review of my third novel, Glam Rock Boyfriends (NZB Spring 2014). Nick Bollinger, your reviewer, is an expert re rock music, so I was delighted to find the music details were fine, as he did not mention any issues. Descriptions in the book also conjured up rewarding, tangible images, he said. Yes, I did want readers to enjoy recalling the recent past. Crisp poplins on a summer’s day in the 1950s, for instance, and satins and velvets sumptuous in the 1970s.

The reviewer did, however, create the impression, to my mind, that this narrative can’t truly be all that fictional (due to the realism of the text and the mention of the actual names of some famous musical groups). But I need to make it clear, it is fiction. Glam Rock Boyfriends really is “An Imaginary Memoir”. Of course, the novel includes some real people, famous bands such as Dragon and The Scavengers and thinly disguised places from the punk era, such as Barbz being Swinez. Facts pertinent to the era are essential for the setting and context to ring true. My skill with narrative prose is usually realism in a contemporary manner, and a good writer makes the reader believe that what they write truly exists. As Rene Harrison, who launched the book, said: “What we write becomes the truth.” Practice, practice, practice, that makes fiction writing genuinely engaging.

Also, yes, as the reviewer states, this novel concerns many male characters, mainly those boyfriends in the title, so that’s why women and girls do not appear for long. It’s over 400 pages, about 20 years of research to weave into the book, then nine years for the actual writing and editing. But there’s only so much characterisation you can manage in a novel (unless you’re Tolstoy). So the reviewer may be trying to encourage me to write a tale now about female friendships (by sounding disappointed or puzzled that they were not shown in more detail). But the novel as it stands needed to keep focus on the main character and her male friends.

Patricia loves these glamorous males (albeit serially); they’re genuine boyfriends. She is, therefore, kind and loving about them in retrospect – eventually. Patricia learns better; some do. Personal development may happen (just rarely all that quickly, and not for everyone). Also, perhaps Patricia, aka Athena, being so charitable and in-depth with the male characters will help people see that feminists do love and are for men, too. Truly. For the record, I would write about female friendships in a loving manner, as well.

The reviewer seems to imply that the men are treated well, while the women are almost ignored. But Patricia did have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or Syndrome (PTSD or PTSS), and is recalling this memory, so she finds it hard to focus, still, even with something of a cure. She is not necessarily aware of that, but I am, as the researcher and writer. The book is, by the way, made up of 15 people’s stories turned into one, and the research involved much reading plus decades of working with difficult people and situations in my many educational roles.

Patricia therefore does her best to focus on only one aspect of her life: romantic love. She wants better, examining her life as the ancient Greek philosophers wisely advised, to make her existence worthwhile. Maintaining one continuous theme also helped me to more easily present a contemporary novel as a series of short stories, necessary for the current short attention span of readers (something noted by social science researchers over the last decade at least). Anyway, I imagined Patricia could write about the women and girls involved at some other time.

The reviewer does not make enough of Patricia’s condition; it is a serious illness. The sensitivity with which I wrote about it was in order not to trigger anyone else’s PTSD. This is a definite concern when writing about such matters, even in fiction – I was commissioned to write for The Butterfly Diaries recently, re suicide survivors, which helped me with this novel’s wording. I cannot expect everyone to possess this specialist knowledge and see now we could have had more notes re PTSD in the notes at the back of the book; thank you for leading us to this conclusion.

Just great, in any case, to see such a mainly informative, helpful review. Your reviewer’s words could naturally assist readers to see more clearly what the book is like, in some respects. I simply wanted to make it clear to your readers why those real names exist in Glam Rock Boyfriends, An Imaginary Memoir (it’s on the cover) and to answer a few other questions that were raised relating to the realism and focus. I trust these concerns are now settled, as much as a letter to your well-read quarterly may do so.

abridged
Raewyn Alexander
Auckland

 

Nick Bollinger replies:

I enjoyed the book and found the musical and cultural background resonant and evocative. I made it clear in the review, for any readers not familiar with the genre, what an “imaginary memoir” is. I did not, as Alexander suggests, “create the impression” that this was not a work of fiction. I consistently referred to the book as a novel or story and to Patricia as the protagonist (or, in one instance, the memoirist – which she is). I never referred to Alexander as the memoirist, only as the author. I don’t believe I could have been any clearer than this.

I noted that Alexander had, in places, used names of actual people (such as Tim Shadbolt) and existing bands (such as Dragon); something for which there are plenty of precedents in fiction. I also noted that some of the characters “have fictional names yet feel too familiar to be wholly invented”. Alexander confirms that she used research and the actual stories of a number of different people. In drawing attention to the familiarity of her characters, I am effectively complimenting the author on the thoroughness and accuracy of her research, not disputing that the book is a work of fiction.

Alexander confirms that it was her intention to make the story fundamentally about one woman and her relationships with a number of men. Given this, one would expect the male characters to be more fully drawn than the female ones, and I acknowledged this. What did surprise me was how offhand Patricia could be towards her female friends and, in particular, her mother. In pointing this out, I did not mean to suggest the book should have been written from any other perspective. I was simply remarking on a significant aspect of the protagonist’s personality.

Alexander believes I didn’t make enough of the protagonist’s Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, I noted this quite clearly. But I also gave my opinion that the book is more engaging when the protagonist is reliving her youthful experiences than when she analyses them in the light of her subsequent therapies.

 

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