Imagining murder and menace, Sandra Arnold

Soon after my novel, A Distraction of Opposites, was published I saw a long and extraordinary review of it in New Zealand titled: Many hidden insights in ultracomplex first novel. The first half defined the kind of novel the reviewer felt I ought to have written and the second half objected to the fact that that wasn’t what I had written. Novelists should realise, she said, that novels were things to be read between boiling the potatoes and answering the phone. Only in university literature classes were they given concentrated attention.

She went on to say that my novel had broken a rule. The rule was that magicians did not give away their secrets; therefore writers should not give away secrets about how they get the material for their fiction. Worse still, the female character, an aspiring poet, had become “enmeshed” by the male character, an established novelist. This diminished her worth as a person, said the reviewer, and meant she would never develop into a worthwhile writer, adding that she felt worried because the author didn’t realise this.

What outraged her more than anything, however, was that the book contained horrific imagery. She felt this qualified her to offer an analysis on the kind of person I must be for having written such things. She ended her review: “… we are bound to ask what are we to make of the creator of this novel? If the novel is the sum of her inner and outer lives and the people she has met, if the vision is hers and if the horrific imagery is culled from her particular way of viewing the world, then we are in the presence of a truly disturbing woman. I hope she is pretending.”

This reviewer, in confusing the boundaries of reality and imagination, made the ‑ not uncommon ‑ mistake of assuming that the created image is synonymous with the creator. It seems to me that more evidence is needed before we can draw that conclusion. It would be a little naïve to assume that Agatha Christie and P D James are murderers and that Fay Weldon hates men.

This inability to distinguish between created image and creator is not limited to readers of fiction. It is common for actors in television soap operas to be deluged with flowers from viewers when their character marries or dies. Heather Busch, the New Zealand artist who painted the picture for the cover of A Distraction of Opposites, told me that during her exhibitions people tell her all manner of things about herself that she has not previously suspected. Some go as far as telling her she is evil or sick. She believes that the intense reactions her paintings arouse are responses to repressed feelings that the images activate.

For this reason I found it interesting that the reviewer felt threatened by the “enmeshed” female character, in view of the fact that enmeshed females ‑ and males ‑ have been the stuff of fiction, poetry and drama for centuries. However, the male character in my book is not the tall, dark handsome hero of romantic fiction; therefore his appeal is not obvious. In fact he is physically unprepossessing, emotionally inadequate, has numerous addictions, and is obsessed by, but afraid of, women. His power lies in his ability with words.

This wins him acclamation as a novelist and acts as a web in which to trap the unwary. A spider image recurs throughout the book to illustrate his modus operandi.

Characters with his preoccupations exist in all walks of life. Inexplicably, they are never short of women willing to prop them up. Even more inexplicably these women are seldom “persons of diminished worth”. It was the “why” and “how” of this enigma that I wanted to examine while simultaneously exploring the power of language to create and destroy.

Writers who write “disturbing” fiction are not necessarily any more disturbing as people than writers of “pleasing prose” are necessarily pleasing. In fact, writers are no different from the rest of the human race. They work, rear children, pay bills, get the washing‑machine fixed, feed the cat, support their family and friends.

Writers attempt to make sense of the nonsensical by writing about it. That is the only thing that makes them different from other people. Personal experience, observation of others, remembered conversations, dreams are all brought together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then the “how?”, “why?”, “what if?” and “what then?” have to be sorted out so that the completed picture is one other people can recognise and empathise with.

The first stories I wrote contained supernatural aspects or set up psychological dilemmas with off-centre personalities. A Distraction of Opposites, which focuses on behaviour which is obsessive/compulsive and abusive, was the culmination of all these elements. It was enormously challenging to write. For three years I wrote for six hours a day, five days a week, then went back to full‑time teaching and continued writing the final drafts in the evenings for another year or so. After it was published I felt free to return to an earlier uncompleted novel ‑ on religious obsession ‑ with greater stamina.

The world my character, Alan Broadbent, inhabits is a cold, dark, lonely place with nameless terrors lurking in the shadows. To understand these terrors I talked to people who had experienced them, read books on delusion and hallucination and interviewed a psychiatrist at a local mental hospital. The only aspect I did not get first‑hand information on was the nature of evil. I considered trying to find a coven of satanists but decided I didn’t need to go this far for the sake of my art! Not having this first‑hand information meant I had to deduce what I could from the character’s behaviour and then let the story gain its own momentum. In this way I was able to write the story on two levels ‑ the physical level on which the characters carried out the everyday functions of their lives, and the subconscious level which paralleled their reality and where the imagery for their writing was generated.

Writing taps into deep parts of the subconscious. I learned to trust this process and it took me to some surprising places at times. I was writing a section about Catherine, the female character thinking, “What a turkey she is, doesn’t she realise what’s happening to her?” Then I thought of a giant turkey being prepared for a feast, gutted, basted with honey, silver frills placed on the severed thighs before being trundled off to the oven to be cooked. I played around with the words and images and saw the scene running in my head as if I were watching a film. Catherine saw this preparation and ‑ to mix metaphors ‑ knew that her goose was about to be cooked.

The story continued in my head while I was folding the washing or doing the gardening. One beautifully hot summer’s day I was digging up the soil when I saw a giant white worm. I had heard of those native worms which lived deep down in undisturbed day but I had never seen one before. That night I dreamed that an enormous tree appeared in the middle of my garden laden with delicious fruit. A crowd of people stood around admiring the fruit and extolling its value to the nation. A woman picked the fruit and took a bite. Then she saw huge worms slither out of the ground and understood what was nourishing the soil this tree grew in. I woke up, leaped out of bed and turned on the word-processor. My subconscious had given me an archetypal image I could work with in showing the growing awareness of evil seeping through into Catherine’s consciousness.

A few days later, back in the garden I was turning the compost heap. I looked at the decaying, rotten things that went into it and thought of the rich fertiliser which came out. In the book Alan uses the compost analogy to explain the process of throwing in the sordid experiences of his life to make rich fiction.

I needed an image for this character that conveyed the impression of a predator without looking like something from a horror film. Again, the garden came to the rescue. The morning was hot. The air was full of lovely scents and birdsong. I went into the toolshed to find some slug repellent and as I turned to go out I saw the sun shining through the broken window pane onto an enormous web. It was exquisitely constructed, like silver lace. I stood admiring it, then saw a bee fly straight into the centre. Its pollen sac was full. As soon as it was stuck in the web a fat, black spider ran out, quickly dispatched it and wrapped it up in a silky shroud. I had the perfect metaphor for Alan.

In the novel, Catherine paints a spider’s web on a canvas in her attic. As she works her way through the entanglements of her relationship with Alan, her past and her present creative journey, she adds to the painting until it is complete with a spider which has Alan’s face. What she does with the finished painting is not only an act of exorcism but of liberation. If I finished writing these passages feeling wrung out I knew things were going well. If I didn’t feel everything the characters were feeling I knew the writing wasn’t working. When the book was published it horrified some people who found the explicit scenes hard to take. But others ‑ men as well as women ‑ said they couldn’t put it down till they found out what happened at the end. Those are the words that are music to a writer’s ears. Ultimately, it is the only test of how well a novel has succeeded in its aim.

Sandra Arnold’s novel A Distraction of Opposites is published by Hazard Press. She is a fiction editor of Takahe, Canterbury chair of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN Inc), and a book reviewer for the Christchurch Press. She was recently awarded a major project grant by the Arts Council to complete her second novel. This article is the text of a speech given to the sixth International Feminist Book Fair, Melbourne, July 1994.

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