Jane Westaway interviews Barbara Else
Some time in the early 90s, six Wellingtonians met for dinner. The only one who earned an honest living was left to study the wallpaper while the other five – all writers past the first flush of youth – talked writing, or rather, getting published.
The men already had a book or two to their names. So the three women – who had none – began a lugubrious game of I’ve-been-writing-and-getting-nowhere-for-longer-than-you-have. The winner, by begrudging consensus, attended her first creative writing class in the mid-70s (because night school geology turned out to be too boring for words) and had been writing seriously ever since. But look – still no book.
A couple of years after that dinner, she dashed into her local supermarket in the state of social invisibility you bank on when you’re wearing shocking pink leggings emblazoned with cartoon skunks, to be confronted by a total stranger demanding, “You’re Barbara Else, aren’t you?”
What came between the dinner and the supermarket was a novel called The Warrior Queen. To date, it’s sold 14,000 copies in this country. It stayed on bestseller lists for six months, was short-listed for the 1996 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and has just been reissued with a new cover. Macmillan published it in the UK, touring Else as one of its Fab Four top writers for 1998, and it’s been translated into German.
“I didn’t ever expect that sort of recognition and found it quite alarming. People suddenly look on you as some sort of guru and you’re not,” says Else. “What happens is you press all the right buttons with a certain character and a certain setting. You get it right in one book, but that doesn’t guarantee you can do it in another or that you’re the sort of person they think you are when they read that book.”
“Let’s be clear,” she continues, “it’s not huge success. No false modesty but no grand ego. There’s an awful lot of luck involved, and because I was the age I was and because I knew the book trade, I knew how to place it. I hope it didn’t go to my head. I’ve seen it go to people’s heads; it’s not pretty to watch.”
As one of the women at the dinner table, I can say with authority that Else’s head is exactly the same size as it always was. She’s still kind to friends who haven’t published bestsellers and, sitting attentively on the edge of her chair in the office allotted Victoria University’s Writing Fellow, she frowns and thinks hard before she speaks.
1998 was a good year to watch what Else calls – with characteristic restraint – “the book trade”. Her third novel, Eating Peacocks, appeared, as did daughter Emma Neale’s first and husband Chris Else’s second. “Emma,” she observes, “as a young blond female new writer got far more attention as a novelist than Chris, a middle-aged male who’s been around for a while. That’s part of the game; and we were all philosophical about it, even though Chris’s novel Brainjoy is much more subtle and serious and pertinent to society than anything Emma or I have written.”
This comment might surprise those who think the author of The Warrior Queen is unkind to men – and there are a few – though Else says, “All novels have to have a baddie, don’t they?” She thought she’d be despised by feminists for sentences like: “Kate loved wearing pretty clothes and putting make-up on, cooking, dead-heading the roses.”
Speaking in Palmerston North (as you do), she was asked grimly by a woman in the audience what her husband thought of her writing. She replied, “He’s sitting over there, you can ask him if you like.” And everyone laughed, except the woman.
It’s her husband she credits with the idea of transforming a short story originally published in Metro into a novel: “Chris had a hobbyhorse that what New Zealand needed was a good satirical novel. He said, ‘You should write it.’ I said, ‘I can’t write satire.’ He said, ‘But you’ve done it.’ I had another look and saw it could be the beginning of a novel. But I didn’t know what about; so I went for a walk and 20 yards up the road, click. I rushed back home and began the first fantasy sequence in The Warrior Queen.”
Has she found the New Zealand literary scene snobbish about popular books? “Hmmn. What does “popular” mean here? If it means a book has touched on something that a wider section of the public responds to than is usual – people who don’t usually buy New Zealand books – I don’t think people are snobbish so much as disconcerted. Humour is looked at with suspicion, by some. Ask Roger Hall. If a piece of writing is funny, it’s not to be taken seriously. Look at the middle-class patriarchal response to The Warrior Queen in the supposedly scholarly Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. But most academics are very positive and encouraging.”
And writers? “I think writers know how hard it is to sustain a single point of view, in the distinctive voice of a particular character, and be funny with it for over 60,000 words. Some may be envious – but I can be envious of other writers too, for what they do. Envy is part of the business; and if it spurs us on to new challenges, I’m all for it. Some writers do have particular and limited notions of what good literature is, and you sometimes get the feeling they want all sorts of writing except their own excised from the canon. What I say is, ‘Thank God we’re allowed a variety of styles and genres these days. It’s another sign New Zealand literature is maturing.’”
Her own published work has ranged widely from children’s stories and novels (Tricky Situations was published this year), to science fiction, radio and stage plays, and short stories: “But I don’t do short stories at all now. They’re too hard. I like to spread out into a longer narrative.”
In spite of being a writer who enjoys making people laugh – “I began to realise I could when I wrote plays. I heard them and saw them rolling with laughter and that’s very eye-opening and empowering” – Else is deadly serious about her work.
Her MA in English shows in her writing talk, and when there’s a novel on the go, she’s at her desk every morning, happily or not. She refuses to work to deadlines that would feed her into the publishing production line, insists on going at her own pace. Her year as Writing Fellow at Victoria has been spent drafting her fourth novel, provisionally titled Three Pretty Widows.
“It’s a peculiar beast. It’s the first time I’ve tried multiple points of view and three separate storylines, which I found very chaotic. First drafts are usually painful but this was the worst. It was emotionally and psychologically exhausting. Because I had all this time, I took a risk with the process – I knew the characters but not the story. I’ve always been lucky that I’ve fought for and been able to maintain writing-time in some way, but I’ve never had nine solid uninterrupted months. I thought I’d have more time to meet friends, read books, attend some lectures, swan around, but as it’s turned out I’ve worked on the writing far harder. If I hadn’t had this time, this book would have been more like the previous ones.”
Is first book success something of a curse, then? Do you need more courage, not less, as you go on? “The hard thing is knowing what readers have really liked and wanting to give them more of it while at the same time setting yourself new challenges. Eating Peacocks was a risk in that way. The humour was still there, and it’s still about family and male-female relationships, but it’s darker. Some readers have wanted the same mixture as before, but others have said it’s my best yet. I do love that word yet.”
Her second novel, Gingerbread Husbands, was published in England earlier this year, and getting published overseas is still most writers’ and readers’ definition of success. Else says, “It’s more money – a nice lump sum for an advance that you can actually live on for a while instead of the teeny amount we get here. But both the pitfalls and the triumphs are there, just as they are in getting published locally, except they’re deeper and higher. It’s harder keeping up with what’s happening with your book; you’re competing in a far larger forum and you need more luck. It’s important not to get your hopes up too high. For instance, sales in Canada and the UK for a novel can be only 2000. That’s astonishingly low, no better than in New Zealand. I’ve done better than that, but I want to do much better. I’ve cracked it, but I haven’t cracked it big time, and I have to work even harder from now on.”
Barbara Else was this year’s Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. Jane Westaway’s first novel Love & Other Excuses will be reviewed in our next issue.